I’ve been listening to a lot of solo piano music recently. Such is the ubiquity of the piano in Western (now global?) culture that it often seems as if we are trained to respond to certain sounds and patterns from this instrument much in the manner of Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell that in their minds had become indissociable from food. Doing anything new or interesting with this instrument would therefore seem all the more unlikely given these associations, and yet some piano music is still capable of surprising. Though not usual Fluid Radio fare, Bertrand Chamayou’s even-handed recording of Maurice Ravel’s “Complete Works For Solo Piano” (Erato 2016) reveals the strangeness of some of the French composer’s pieces for piano, or rather perhaps the way in which the music manages to be at once both familiar and strange — in the glimmering midnight moods of ‘Miroirs’, for example, or the steady, sombre pacing of ‘Le Gibet’ from ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’.
Nhung Nguyen’s “Nostalgia” opens with two pieces in a more familiar, perhaps formulaic French-inspired vein, reminiscent of film soundtracks with their simple broken chords and repeating melodies. Reverb and echo are used to create a melancholy, reverie-inducing mood. Yet later tracks ‘Distance’ and ‘Fragile’ switch gears to provide a more adventurous listen, driven by repeating minimalist patterns approaching and receding in layers. ‘Grace’ sounds like it was composed using synthesiser but apparently is also based on piano recordings, opening with quiet darkness before brightness emerges like the sun breaking through clouds. Nguyen’s more experimental work under her Sound Awakener moniker remains more to my liking, but fans of modern classical piano would do well to give “Nostalgia” a listen.
The piano music of Linda Catlin Smith is expertly brought to life by Eve Egoyan on her recording “Thought and Desire”. Melodies and harmonies make audible a constant wandering, driven by a very specific, persistent urge. Nowhere is this clearer than on the wonderful title piece, where streams of chords are repeatedly brought to a halt by a pinprick of light that simply refuses to be dismissed, even when Egoyan’s delicate voice joins the argument. The series “Nocturnes and Chorales” presents such mysteries as steep crags of broken chords climbing into icy heights (‘Nocturne 3’), a giant’s plodding footsteps (‘Chorale 3’), and the leaping of notes like a mountain goat followed by the great flurry of a sudden blizzard (‘Chorale 4’). Egoyan’s playing highlights the way in which Catlin Smith’s warm harmonies are constantly displaced and unsettled by restless searching.
Michael Pisaro’s “the earth and the sky” (Erstwhile Records, 2016) comprises three discs, the entirety of the third being given over to the remarkable ‘green hour, grey future’. Pianist Reinier van Houdt begins with a deep, firm bass note, repeated at fairly regular intervals, before pausing to allow a faint resonant glimmer to come to the fore. The piece alternates between these two sections, piano notes followed by a ‘coda’ of resonances and electronics, while becoming more and more complex. At some point, the piano section shifts from a mute jumble of notes to a harmonically rich and lyrical song, but the transition is so gradual and subtle that the exact moment of coming into focus is hard to pinpoint, and surely differs from listener to listener and from listen to listen. Towards the end of the piece, sparseness and uncertainty gradually return, led by a vague rumble and what sounds like ricefall as the piano repeatedly fades away only to return even more hesitantly.
We could say that ‘green hour, grey future’ moves from strange to familiar to strange again. Now is the moment of lucidity, while past and future are hazy — but this now shifts backwards and forwards in time, its exact location always uncertain. These contingent transitions highlight the piano’s enduring capacity to become other than what we know it as, as if the one thing we can know for certain about the instrument is that it could always be otherwise. And if something as familiar as the piano is subject to such a condition, then why not the rest of the world?
Image: Eve Egoyan peforming Ann Southam’s ‘Simple Lines of Enquiry’