Striking a Chord: Considerations on the Piano on the Current Neoclassical Scene

Cocooning Javier BlánquezThis month, Cocooning is monographic. But don’t worry about the classic format: in a few days it will be back, as there is a lot of material to get through for those addicted to the sofa, the cat, and stable sleep cycles. This Cocooning, as you see, is about the piano.

Of all of the musical instruments that exist, and have existed, none of them can even come close to it. It is a beautiful, imposing object, with a colour balanced by the graceful alternation of black and white keys; it has a shape that transmits strength and at the same time can become an erogenous agent. For the French composer Sylvain Chauveau, who plays like someone listening to the snow fall, it is clear: “The king of the acoustic instruments, as in the tradition of Western music, is the piano; it is the instrument of power, of the composer as master, the tool that could symbolize the whole orchestra.” For this reason, declaring that today we are experiencing a revival of the piano would be rash, at the very least (so as not to say ridiculous). If there is one instrument, only one, which has never gone out of fashion since the beginning of its existence (and never will), it is this one. And nevertheless, it is true that in recent times it has once again become more frequently used—in its purest form—in popular music. There is a boom, if not in the piano, then in albums in which the piano is the first source of the sound. Unlike songs “with” piano –an idea that, to name an example, Elton John would fit into very well, hoping that you will catch the nuance—there are increasingly more, and more widely accepted compositions outside of classical music (and music for films) that consider the piano as the most valid tool for communication.There are, then, people who use the piano as an ostentatious object—some seek, more than its aroma and feel, the tremendous stage presence that it possesses; if it were an animal, it would be an Arabian horse—while others have it because with it they transmit the deepest emotions in an intimate dialogue with the listener. This is the nuance that explains the aforementioned “boom” in the piano, an increase in popularity that has nothing to do with groups like Keane or Coldplay, nor with soloists like Alicia Keys or the omnipresent Lady Gaga: in her current tour, of course, there are a couple of numbers where she appears in front of the keyboard, alone, with drama included. In any case, there is nothing that could connect the work of Nils Frahm to the crocodile tears of Gaga or to Keys’ pyrotechnics. The piano per se is not a defining element: it is the intimacy of its use, the affection given to it, the caresses given to it by brushing it with the fingertips as one starts to play a scale. And in recent times, a young generation of self-taught composers, not virtuosos, but tremendously sincere, have managed what seemed difficult in this so highly technological age: to once again put the piano at the forefront of underground creation. The piano, always identified with the bourgeois, the ostentatious, with the false teary ballad and Beethoven, flourishes now as a channel for trembling, a medium that underlines the fragility of the common man.“I always have to have a certain feeling to express to make something interesting, I feel,” explains David Wenngren, who has been recording since 2005 as Library Tapes. “Mood is always first for me,” Peter Broderick also declares. “If I was focused on the skills, I think I would be completely disappointed with myself all the time. I have no real training on the piano, so my hands are pretty clumsy.” While in pop the piano can be used as a phallus, an instrument of power, as Chauveau indicated, but also of exhibition, in the neoclassical arena, the piano has been generalised as a bubble of emotional isolation, without virtuosity or technical feats. The majority of these musicians start with a humble, do-it-yourself approach, and this is what gives them an aura of truth—that intimacy that is never false makes them close, dear, easy to love. If they are asked, they identify their music with situations of solitude and pause. “Quiet, contemplative, probably at night and maybe with a glass of nice whiskey,” suggests Greg Haines as the best situation for listening to his mist of piano and electronic music. “ Half-awake, half-asleep, inside the music,” prefers Dustin O’Halloran. And for Chauveau, the place and time is immovable: “ In a concert venue, it’s best to be seated and quiet to listen to my pieces. Being relaxed, open. To listen to the details. To accept slowness. Some people told me once or twice that they enjoyed making love with my music in the background. I liked the story. I like to believe that it’s music for making love.”What separates this contemporary, intimate, timid piano from the piano solo albums that circulated at the end of the 80’s and the middle of the 90’s on the fringes of new age music? As some artists say, always placing emotion and sincerity before all else, emphasising the slowness and intimacy, could be a discourse that pianists such as David Lanz, George Winston, Liz Story and even the Belgian Wim Mertens had in some early albums: a discourse diametrically opposed to the Academy and to pop, private, romantic, and generally sticky-sweet (remember that not everyone liked the soundtrack of “The Piano”, written by Michael Nyman, in its day). In aesthetic terms there are important differences–Greg Haines, Max Richter or Library Tapes often accompany the piano with an electronic background; Peter Broderick puts it next to a guitar or a woodwind instrument that comes in through the window, and in Chauveau’s case it might be another piece in an ensemble, but the difference lies more in the background and in tastes. For the majority of these pianists, with the major exception of Francesco Tristano or Nils Frahm, jazz isn’t a source of inspiration. On the other hand, most are familiar with electronic music and with software, and understand their aesthetic as an evolution of certain artists who integrated the piano into an IDM discourse, or as a reaction to the abuse of technology of recent years. “ Maybe the musicians of the past decade are so immersed in technology (in music and in everyday life) that they felt a need to come back to acoustic instruments,” reflects Sylvain Chauveau. “ In the late 90’s, most innovations were in electronic music. Wonderful and creative things appeared, from Oval to Aphex Twin, from Pan Sonic to Ikeda, from minimal techno to glitch music. But pure electronic probably came to an end or saturation. By ‘98, I could already feel there would be a need for acoustic [to come] back into the experimental and underground scene. And apparently I was not so wrong.

A work that is cited as crucial in the acceptance of the piano in the underground is, curiously, one of the craziest albums of recent IDM, that break inferno titled “Drukqs” (2001), by Aphex Twin. “ That record, or Gonzales “Piano Solo,” definitely helped to bring the piano into focus,” indicates Nils Frahm. At that time, the door was already open to using the instrument in very different types of contexts, but especially in albums like that of Aphex Twin, which referred very subliminally to furniture music of Erik Satie and music for mechanical instruments– they normalised the strange relationship between electronic equipment and the king of keyboards. It’s not that they helped musicians—does anybody really think that Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto needed the approval of Aphex Twin to launch the glitch + piano projects of the albums “Vrioon” (2002) and “Insen” (2005)? – but it did allow much of the post-techno audience to enter landscapes of acoustic texture fearlessly. It is precisely this change in the mentality of younger audiences familiar with club music that helped keep Sakamoto and Noto’s albums from gathering dust in the experimental ghetto. This audience, as it has grown up and adopted a more sedentary lifestyle, is the one that is, of course, best served by this musicIt’s also interesting to notice how this generation of instinctive pianists seeks to distance themselves from any legacy of classical music. They are children of the 20th century. As Sylvain Chauveau says, “for some reason I hardly enjoy something that was composed before 1880.” The French musician explains his switch to the piano as a rebellion against rock, and he remembers how “ at the end of the 90s, I realized that if I kept playing rock, I would only imitate the music of American and English musicians. So I stopped and wondered what I could do as a non-American and non-British musician. As I’m French, I started to look at the French cultural background in music. What I saw was a bunch of composers of the late 19th and early 20th Century: Satie, Debussy, Ravel , and electronic pioneers: Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry.” Satie is often mentioned as an influence –nobody sees a reflection in Chopin or Listz, on the other hand—and other names that come up are Arvo Pärt (“ he changed my life forever,” assures Greg Haines) and American minimalists such as Glass or Reich. In these choices is where one sees the distance from the neoclassical piano of the great composers –only Francesco Tristano would prefer Bach to Górecki– and the preference for mood over the chromatic richness of the composition.And even more importantly, they never cite their contemporaries—musicians under the age of 40, so that we understand each other– as an influence. The neoclassical piano scene exists as a scene because the albums that are released have aesthetic similarities or share the same label– Type, Kning Disk, Erased Tapes, Sonic Pieces– but never because the musicians have woven a social network of exchange, support, or close collaboration of any kind. They are isolated, private entities, although the moment and the growth in the volume and quality of the material has ended up constructing a false circuit in which there aren’t so many musicians or audiences, but there are motivated talents and a large group of faithful followers.

For example: Peter Broderick has started to affect indies addicted to sensitive material with his albums close to folk music, although he continues to record wonders in his home studio in which the piano is mixed with the sound of autumn rain. Keith Kenniff, also known as Helios or Goldmund –one of the first authors of the neoclassical scene who started the boom of piano albums with that fragile “Corduroy Road”– has already gotten where he wanted to go, which is the circuit of music for films, with the soundtrack of “The Last Survivor”, released recently. And to complete this feeling of a scene and active interest in some focal points of the underground, notice how the first compilations are appearing: not long ago, the American Typewriter label put out a record called “Keys (A Comprehensive Collection of Contemporary Piano Compositions)”, which featured exclusive songs by Richard A Ingram, Library Tapes, Rafael Anton Irisarri or Machinefabriek. It does seem to be a bit of a phenomenon right now, but I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s just a rebellion against all the guitar and electronic music of the last 20 years. For myself, I was always writing on the piano, so it was nothing new or strange for me. Perhaps it’s the same for others,” reflects Dustin O’Halloran. That expression “others” shows that he doesn’t communicate with anyone, that he lives in his private nirvana out of contact with the outside world. It is for this reason that the “scene” will stay alive for a long time: first of all, it isn’t a scene at all, only a sum of individuals, and secondly, because the piano is an instrument that can’t go out of fashion. With these musicians, there can be no marketing, nor can you package their music more fashionably. Not even the most saleable track for the mainstream of this batch, the single “Returnal” by Oneohtrix Point Never, played on the piano and with Antony as the voice– has potential as a pop hit. Music for the piano only has one possible stage: to affect the listener at a profound level, penetrating the skin, and without the company of more than one person. It might be the individual instrument or with the accompaniment of a cello (like Haines does) or of digital electronic music –by the way, a new collaboration is expected from Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto for 2011, and hopefully Kenneth Kirschner will continue to release material, with or without Taylor Deupree; the “Post-Piano” series deserves more albums. It might be more or less evolved technologically–Sylvain Chauveau dreams of “ a piano that would constantly stay tuned and that the pedals would be completely silent when you press and release them”– but it is always faithful to the sound. The important thing is that it will never disappear, because as Peter Broderick so rightly says, this current scene, this so-called boom, is really an illusion. What is new now? Nothing. “ The piano has had many booms!” He’s right. But this “boom,” fortunately, is being especially advantageous, prolonged. So prolonged that the current moment is still a sweet moment.

“Idiosynkrasia” by Francesco Tristano, is already on sale through Infiné. “Like Green Grass against a Blue Sky” (Auetic), by Library Tapes, “The Last Survivor” (Circle Into Square), by Keith Kenniff, and the compilation “Keys (A Comprehensive Collection of Contemporary Piano Compositions)” (American Typewriter) are also fresh material.

10 Piano Albums You Should Hear

This is not at all a canon, but rather a wide-ranging sample to begin to familiarise yourself with the sound of neoclassical piano in its different forms: solo, with the accompaniment of another instrument or an electronic layer, or directly defragmented and disintegrated. In strict order of date of release.

Sylvain Chauveau: “Un Autre Décembre” (130701, 2003) After passing through several post-rock projects, Sylvain Chauveau slowly began to develop his new neoclassical orientation. “Un Autre Décembre” is his first solo piano album, as fragile as glass, with a clear Satie inspiration, and full of beautiful miniatures.

Gonzales: “Solo Piano” (No Format-Universal, 2004) Gonzales played the role of the buffoon in the electronic court: his dirty look, his rapper gestures, his filthy mouth, hadn’t prepared the public for this. And this is an album with a romantic inspiration, perfectly executed, in which the hairy Canadian showed himself to be an extremely well-trained pianist. More Schumann than Clayderman.

Goldmund: “Corduroy Road” (Type, 2005) The pieces included in “Corduroy Road” are very subtle adaptations of popular American songs that circulated around the country during the Civil War, 140 years ago. Keith Kenniff reduced them to bitter pills with a delicate touch and sombre harmonies, an album—like several of his—with death floating around them.

Kenneth Kirschner: “Post_Piano 2” (12k, 2005) “Post Piano”, for the New York composer, means practicing the same operation as post-rock in its day: using a specific instrument in such a way that it sounds like something different. Here it isn’t a guitar sounding like a synthesised keyboard, but rather a piano sounding like software in the Max/MSP style: glitches, clicks, and subcutaneous textures with the occasional real note floating as a contrast. Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto: “Insen” (Raster-Noton, 2005) “Insen” isn’t as radical aesthetically as Kirschner’s albums. Its impact, on the other hand, is longer lasting: the beauty of these compositions surpasses that of “Vrioon”, and in them, Sakamoto’s impressionistic notes are intertwined freely with the cold digital pulses of the master of Raster-Noton. A lasting masterpiece.

Peter Broderick: “Docile” (Kning Disk, 2007) Before Broderick was an author called upon by different labels and audiences, the Portland musician debuted with a solo piano bagatelle for the Danish label Kning Disk, within the framework of a mini-collection of albums with only the king of instruments. It sounds more timid than ever, you can tell that he’s nervous. It’s a learner’s album, but sincere from beginning to end.

Francesco Tristano: “Auricle Bio On” (Infiné, 2008)Here, it seems like a defragmented piano and techno bases are playing at the same time. In reality, it’s all piano: a piano played in jam sessions, later passed to hard disk, atomised in Ableton Live and reconstructed at different levels: there is the baroque level that Francesco Tristano likes so much, there is the ambient piano and the low piano that seems in the end like a Basic Channel production (behind the controls, in fact, is Moritz Von Oswald). A jigsaw puzzle that is so far unsurpassed. Nils Frahm: “Wintermusik” (Sonic Pieces, 2009) Nils Frahm in his more serious, sadder version: parallel to “The Bells”, his most widespread album, he also put out this shorter collection of compositions, inspired by the winter. It isn’t a Christmas album, but rather an album that seeks to reinforce the mood reserved for cold days. The strange thing is that this music that is so skeletal gives off warmth.

Danny Norbury: “Light In August” (Lacies, 2009)This isn’t a solo piano album: Peter Broderick is also here providing company, and the sounds of “Light in August” come simultaneously from a tremulous cello and a piano that sounds like raindrops falling in slow motion. The effect is pleasurable and has much to do with the title: it isn’t a cold winter album, but rather an intimate summer sunset album.

Library Tapes: “Like Green Grass Against A Blue Sky” (Auetic, 2010) The Library Tapes sound taken to the next level: the piano sounds more transparent than ever, like the air that slips through the space left by tree branches; the electronic music is there behind it, underlining the discourse, but also penetrating the pores of the skin. One must listen to it at night, with the fireplace it, and the world quiet outside.

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