Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
The following review of the piano series was written by Bill Meyer for Signal to Noise magazine:
Is there any instrument more obliterating than the piano? In Europe, it imposed order upon a continent full of orchestras of idiosyncratic character, bringing their individual tones in line with its own mandate. Sent with colonizers around the world, it has eroded centuries-long practices of tuning and organization. There is no instrument more generic; consider how easy it is to tune out what a piano is actually playing and only hear “piano,” a vaguely generalized sound without content. John Cage and David Tudor, Henry Cowell, Cecil Taylor — they have all agitated against the instrument’s hegemony without breaking their allegiance to it, subverting it but also partaking of its power. In the 21st century Another Timbre has enlisted eight musicians to find out if anything new can be tugged out of it.
Lost Daylight begins with John Tilbury’s performance of five pieces by the late American composer Terry Jennings, who was an associate of La Monte Young. Jennings’ music seems to be poised midway between romanticism and minimalism, sparse, lovely, and in love with the piano’s inherent tone. Tilbury uses the instrument’s resonance to fill the spaces between the notes with ineffable, decaying sound. He eloquently poses one of the piano’s problems — it is capable of such great beauty that those who would use it are ultimately used by it. This music is at peace with the piano, and while it may have challenged compositional convention when it first came about, it didn’t challenge the fundamental nature of the instrument. The final track, a nearly 40 minute rendition of John Cage’s Electronic Music For Piano, is the solution that problem. Tilbury and Sebastian Lexner, himself an accomplished pianist but sticking here to electronics, treat the piano, sound, and music as things to be subverted. The score is a set of prescriptions, many of them random — the players must consult a star chart for direction. The piano is whacked, its innards cluttered, its tone electronically altered. They disrupt the old beauty, but can’t help but create something just as compelling to take its place. The duo have added further randomization via post hoc editing, and taken Cage’s engagement with silence one step further by splicing digital silences into the moments of quiet when neither man plays. You could lose yourself for an age in this record.
Cornford and Rodgers extend the Cagian challenge of the piano’s nature on Turned Moment, weighting. Cornford comes from a sculpting background, and here he works with piano feedback. To him the piano is a big shaped thing with movable parts, like a kinetic sculpture; sound is also something to be shaped. Rodgers, who is credited with piano and objects, is also drawn to the malleability of sound. His clanking, chiming attacks on the strings make impressions on the ribbons of feedback, like a piano roll puncher that can’t quite get through the paper. A listener unfamiliar with the notion of prepared piano might never know that the instrument was involved.
Heartland is a solo recital by German Magda Mayas. She works mostly inside the piano, obtaining all manner of woody scrapes, sharp clicks, and metallic reports. She’s less interested in discreet events than a total sound, a detailed mass that flies over you like sped-up video footage of clouds. But even though she turns the piano into a steel drum band, a box of rocks, and an amplification chamber for precipitation, she never lets go of the piano’s essential self. Of all the players involved in this series, she is most in touch with the piano as a miniature orchestra.
While all of these albums are musical, The Middle Distance is the most musicianly. Chris Burn plays directly on his piano’s strings, Philip Thomas modifies his; noted double bassist Simon Fell doesn’t touch a piano at all, although he’s done so elsewhere in his discography. The pianists each get one side of the stereo spectrum, but even if they didn’t it would not be hard to tell them apart. Although not totally allergic to touching the keys, Burn often uses the piano as a long stringed instrument, a harp or zither. Thomas’s modifications often turn his instrument into a percussion ensemble that happens to emit the odd key-strike. Fell wrenches cavernous groans and sprung wire sonorities from his bass. But more than the sounds, it’s how they find a fit together, break what they’ve found, and reassemble it that is the point. In other words, it’s all about interaction; you could, in the kindest and most appreciative way, call it good old-fashioned free improv.
- Bill Meyer, Signal to Noise