Spill

Fluoresce
Monotype Records Mono050

Magda Mayas and Chris Abrahams

Gardener

Relative Pitch RPR 1011

As she becomes progressively better known, it’s evident that Berlin-based Magda Mayas is one of the evolving masters – or more properly mistresses – of extended keyboard playing. Regularly improvising with fellow sound explorers such as prepared guitarist Annette Krebs from Berlin and Parisian alto saxophonist Christine Abdelnour, the keyboardist has revealed close-listening and participating strategies. Gardener and Fluoresce confirm this; but the CD with her long-time partner, percussionist Tony Buck comes across as more satisfying than the one featuring keyboardist Chris Abrahams, despite him, like Buck, being an Australian plus a member of The Necks.

Essentially the troublesome drawback to Gardner is that both Mayas and Abrahams play piano, harpsichord and harmonium. Unlike piano duos which frequently specialize in doubling forthright thrusts, the very nature of the instruments here – even the piano which is mostly exploited as a sound source – intensifies the keyboardists’ stylistic weaknesses. Both are reactive players whose skill lies in intertwining textured among other musicians’ linear ideas. Yet on this CD the conception is that of overly politeness, each keyboardist waiting for the other to make a definitive move. The result puts a blanket of sameness over the six tracks. Especially unfortunate are those instances when the two produce a version of a so-called classical piano duo as on part of “Ash Canopy”. Tremolo runs are there as well as reverberating syncopation, but only when they (both?) abandon conventional chording for fractured dynamics and wood-sourced percussive thumps does the playing galvanize. Other pieces sound strangely unfinished, especially when phrasing is this side of inaudible and more repetative than chromatic. The layering becomes somewhat more transparent when each uses a different keyboard. Again though the harmonium’s role in spreading ostinato smears and the harpsichord’s in plucked patterns create pointillist timbres which merely blend rather than stand out.

More scope to explore diverse narratives arises on “The Changes Wrought by the Recurring Use of Tools”, the CD’s longest track with a title which suggests that preparations may be put into play. Probably because of this, both keyboard parts are better defined than elsewhere with audible criss-cross pulses, resounding, baroque harpsichord patterns and the percussive squeaking and rubbing of internal strings more evident. Working up to a climatic resolution with staccato friction, one wishes that more toughness had gone into the other duets.

Fluoresce is far removed from this mirroring since Buck is able to add the rhythms from drums, cymbals, gongs, bells, tabla and percussion to Mayas’ piano, clavinet, tiger organ, harmonium, objects and preparations. With the boundaries thus defined the interface during the four tracks moves from that which touches on microtonal notated music and lyrical swing as well as sequences that suggest Hard Rock. Mercurial and focused as the improvisations move linearly, the pianist’s scratches and plucks take on a percussive role, while the percussionist vibrates gongs and temple bells for descriptive delicacy.

Preparations mean that some narratives like the title tune are underlined by machine-affiliated echo chamber effects and buzzing drones. Simultaneously futuristic and conventional, the track maintains an affecting emotionalism as Mayas and Buck add string-stopped and cymbal-rubbed warbles and whinges to multiply the fluid textures, involving soundboard resonation and multiple rhythms. When the keyboardist’s glissandi’s subside and the drummer’s ambidextrous and echoing beat give way to understated pulsing and bow on cymbal scratches, Mayas adds lyrical vibrations. “Fluoresce” concludes by becoming a calming barely-there chamber piece for feather-light percussion strokes plus inner string jabs and keyboard pricks.

Initially as expansive as German and/or Australian topography, “Sermon” becomes more congested as the number of sonic tropes multiples within the improvisation. Mayas constructs a base of harmonium slurs, while using the clavinet to interject tension-ridden twangs that could come from a guitarist. To mark a change of pace, Buck fortifies his repetative shuffle beats with accelerating friction to meet Sun Ra-like staccato keyboard shudders until the seemingly unmanageable sound shards stop spinning out multiple patterns and are pushed into a conclusion that successfully blends spiky textures.

Expressing her mastery of multiple keyboard skills with these CDs, Mayas demonstrates that notable sessions can be constructed out of inferences and smears rather than melodies. Even within these self-defined strictures, it’s evident that the contrast among different instruments creates more satisfying results than the sameness of too-similar sounds.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Fluoresce: 1. Steel Tide 2. Coalesce 3. Galleon 4. Sermon

Personnel: Fluoresce: Magda Mayas (piano, clavinet, tiger organ, harmonium, objects and preparations) and Tony Buck (drums, cymbals, gongs, bells, tabla and percussion)

Track Listing: Gardener: 1. Song Of The Pylons 2. The Changes Wrought by the Recurring Use of Tools 3. Lichens 4. Surroundings 5. Ash Canopy 6. Remnant

Personnel: Gardener: Magda Mayas and Chris Abrahams (pianos, harpsichords and harmoniums)