Albert van Veenendaal

April 18, 2011

Minimal Damage

Evil Rabbit ERR 13

More than four centuries after the invention of the piano-forte, new possibilities for its role as a solo instrument continue to exist. This trio of discs demonstrates that with a caveat: As the 21st Century deepens, it’s evident that the most popular innovation involves preparing the strings and treating the box so that the piano becomes as much a percussion instrument as a stringed one.

Certainly that’s how Amsterdam-based Albert Van Veenendaal operates on the 16 improvisations that make up Minimal Damage. Someone interested in the epic and cinematic qualities of improvisation – note the track titles – he has worked with writers, painters, actors and dancers as well as fellow musicians such as pianist Fabrizio Puglisi, bassist Meinrad Kneer and percussionist Yonga Sun. Parisian Benoît Delbecq on the other hand, who plays a 92-key Bosendorfer on Circles and Calligrams, moves between the instrument’s conventional timbres and the polyrhythms available from preparing the instrument. Conversant with modern notated as well as improvisational strategies, he has frequently recorded with the likes of drummer Steve Argüelles and bassist Hubert Dupont plus a duo piano disc with Andy Milne. Least-known of the three keyboardists is Seoul-based Park Chan Soo, who by necessity and as the result of running his own house concerts, has since 2002 has created a unique take on conventional and prepared piano, distinctively demonstrated on Infinite Finitude. Over the years Park, who is also music director for the Kim Young-hee MUT dance company, has played with international improvisers such as saxophonist Alfred 23 Harth and pianist/violinist Helmut Bieler-Wendt.

Most wedded to the possibilities of the prepared piano, Van Veenendaal presents a hodge-podge of intonation and resonations that could as easily arise from the thumbtack-altered hammers of a honky-tonk piano or from a souped-up clavichord abrasively rasping and reverberating in a fashion scarcely imagined in earlier centuries. High-frequency coloration mixed with chordal percussiveness on “Mechanic Mushroom” for instance has resonations that recall a harpsichord’s plucking feathers. “The Spy and the Vampire” on the other hand develops with funk-like rhythms that are further bifurcated among right-handed stride echoes, near bottleneck guitar-like slides and what could be an alarm clock ringing in the background.

Elsewhere effects on pieces such as “Sea Monkeys” encompass vamps that suggest there are two pianists in the studio: one playing a clavichord whose interchangeable runs create an underlying beat; and the other plucking string timbres at a tempo that moves from presto to staccatissimo that could come from a kalimba. Then there’s “Slow Boat”, which despite being taken adagio, opens up the keyboard expression with positioned plucks and stretched vibrations that rapidly succeed one another, culminating in centred note cascades.

Other scenes set in this aural cinemascope collection encompass staccato, fortissimo and dramatic overtones; hurdy-gurdy-like multiphonics; buzzes and stops possibly produced by knives or bars dragged along the strings; and almost never-ending syncopated and agitato tones that play up the wooden quality of the capotes, soundboard, back frame and action. Appended at least subliminally to these tropes are the sonically brutal mechanized concepts of the Futurists.

Moving even further into the future with contemporary techniques is Delbecq’s CD, crafted following a month-long residency at Civitella Ranieri Centre near Perugia. One instance is a remix by sound artist Nicolas Becker of “Mille Nandie”, and earlier composition by the pianist. Another is “A Lack of Dreams” where Delbecq mixes staccato secondary line and skipping andante changes. “BioBeat” mixes an angular Monk-like rhythm on top plus wood-clanking internal string strums with sharp peal point that becomes infectious at the turnaround.

The larger-than-usual keyboard exposes additional between-the-key timbres as well as intonation from beneath the fallback. Together they multiply his ability to blend advanced Jazz piano strategies with those inherited from the so-called classical avant-garde plus West African inflected grooves and polyphony. Like Van Veenendaal at points, the contrasting dynamics of cascading chords and woody strokes on “Ando” make it appear as if two pianos are in play. In contrast Delbecq’s tremolo treatment of “Fireflies” references a Europeanized version of the Blues that moves without every touching Soul or Swing. Instead the narrative mixes clipped legato measures and heavily syncopated passing chords and note clusters.

Even more removed from western influences, except by osmosis, is Park, whose dramatic improvisations use protracted pauses and unconventional strategies to display his ideas. By the same token, alternating kinetic and staccato runs, tremolo pacing or nearly inaudible key palming follow earlier antecedents from both eastern and west.ern musics.

For example “Take #4” works its way from repetitive low-frequency bass notes to a variant of triple reverb so that the bottom board and capotes ring with heavy-handed pressure. As this orchestral-styled coloration intensifies, Park exposes Cecil Taylor-like note cascades, adding pedal-point pressure and intense staccato timbres. By the finale when these gouts of sound diminish to isolated clanging notes, a sonic afterimage of swelling piano tones remains.

Other tracks such as “Take #8” and “Take #5” present other challenges. On the latter for example, before the reductionist performance disappears, largo attributes have been exposed. Following a single foot stomp, ringing piano chords vibrate for several seconds before being choked off, while a recital-like overlay advances one or two notes at a time with pregnant pauses left for suitable ringing resonations. The former tune is played out like a ball of wool, as solitary fortissimo timbres are worried for many seconds until kinetic jumps introduce a variant consisting of high-frequency chording from one hand and key clipping from the other. Nearly two minutes of silence presages a coda of constantly plucked key tremolos.

Without taking refuge in low-key impressionism or gratuitous beat-milking, each of these pianists has evolved an individual take on unaccompanied piano playing. Each one is also worth investigating.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Circles; 1. Circles and Calligrams 2. Ando 3. Meanwhile 4. A Lack of Dreams 5. Alpha 6. Flakes 7. BioBeat 8. Le Sixième Saut 9. Fireflies 10. Mille Nandie Remix

Personnel: Circles: Benoît Delbecq (prepared piano)

Track Listing: Minimal: 1. The Spy and the Vampire 2. Tear Dance; 3. Frog Song 4. Mechanic Mushroom 5. Pirouetteke 6. Daily Values 7. Sea Monkeys 8. Minimal Damage 9. Old Frogs 10. Histoire Pneumatique 11. Whales 12. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat 13. Dark Days & the Moon 14. Transition 15. Zen Gardening 16. Slow Boat

Personnel: Minimal: Albert Van Veenendaal (prepared piano)

Track Listing: Infinite: 1. Take #1 2. Take #2 3. Take #3 4. Take #4 5. Take #5 6. Take #6 7. Take #7 8. Take #8

Personnel: Infinite: Park Chang Soo (prepared piano)