October 17, 2010
Another Timbre at25
Matchless Recordings MRCD 74
As part of individual quests for unique new sonic possibilities for improvisation, two German pianists serendipitously recorded these solo CDs during the same month a couple of years ago. Although both of these accomplished musicians are academics as well, the solutions they hit upon are quite different, making each of these discs fascinating listening.
Berlin-based Magda Mayas, who studied both with Georg Gräwe and Misha Mengelberg, uses specific techniques, amplification and preparations to express her inside and outside piano creations without negating the instrument’s innate physicality. She often works with players such as drummer Tony Buck and cellist Anthea Caddy as well. Sebastian Lexer, who is working on a PhD in performance practice at Goldsmiths, University of London doesn’t negate the piano’s material immutability either. However as someone who is also a recording engineer, programmer and lecturer for interactive music and media software, his creation involves a personally developed Max/MSP software and special microphones which allow him to analyze, process and alter the piano’s acoustic impulses. Working in real time, the results often sound as if more than one keyboard is involved. Committed as well to improvisation he plays with musicians such as alto saxophonist Seymour Wright and guitarist Ross Lambert.
Although it may border on the perverse to say so, in a way Mayas’ CD is more traditional, that is if you accept that an instrument’s role is sound production. On one long and one very long selection, her performance relies as much on the percussive as the melodic piano functions. Since much of the time she’s abrasively burrowing within the instrument, for her a theme is something that can be dug, stopped, strummed and plucked from internal strings. Frequently she mashes implements against the taunt strings, evoking timbres that resonate as much on the dampers, capotes and back frame as the soundboard. Simultaneously glissandi or tremolo runs are exposed on the keys themselves.
Yawning echoes and single key slaps are mated with twanging strings and bell-like resonation on “Slow Metal Skin”, the CD’s 32½-minute showpiece. Eventually the interface is such that both the piano’s insides and outsides are decisively exposed. Trembling mbira-like tones reverberate as if the instrument in use is a combination of wooden-rimmed percussion and metal clavichord. Kinetic pedal pressure adds extensive basso tones as individual strings are twanged sharply until off-handed presses give way to cumulative key patterning so dynamic and high frequency that the equivalent string stops and plinks are barely heard. Although the parallel sound expositions seem unstoppable, any suggestion that these strident drones and dynamic chords are produced by software is banished when hesitant fingering and familiar two-handed chording reveal the human factor beside the sequences.
Piano+ and Max/MSP are in use during Dazwischen’s six tracks on the other hand, but without the changes in sound levels or repetitive loops that would shift the emphasis from electro-acoustic to explicit electronica. Instead Lexer’s skill is such that the piano’s true properties are never in doubt. Pitches may be widened with granulation, or ring modulator signals may appear, but human intelligence still remains. With the keyboardist’s ability to manipulate both instruments simultaneously the end result isn’t unlike those improv CDs featuring meetings between laptop or synthesizer players and pianists.
On “Abscissa and Ordinate” for instance, the signal-processed oscillations are followed by adagio bass pedal thumps and steady chording. If the droning crackles and buzzes come from software, then the disconnected key shakes and strokes are created in real time. Meanwhile on “Defining Edges” the low frequency key clanking and reflective timbral clashes create an interlude of their own, only faintly accompanied by time-stretching electrical patterns. Similarly diffident, near-silent key slaps stand out even more when outlined by oscillated warbles.
The software gives Lexer the reed-like timbres or unending typewriter-key-like percussion that could be created or maintained on an un-extended piano. Yet the relationship is close and so organic to what the piano – and the pianist – initially create that, for example, when building crescendos or reflective rebounds arrive that could come from either piano or piano+, there is no need to identify the exact source.
Overall both Lexer and Mayas have created indelible documents outlining different ways in which pianos can and will sound in the future. These CDs should be appreciated for what they are, rather than studied to reveal the nuts and bolts that went into their creation.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Dazwischen: 1. Time 2. Defining Edges 3. Rapprochement 4. Tone 5. Abscissa and Ordinate 6. Opposition
Personnel: Dazwischen: Sebastian Lexer (piano and piano+ software)
Track Listing: Heartland: 1. Shards 2. Slow Metal Skin
Personnel: Heartland: Magda Mayas (piano)