CD Review: Dan Trueman: Nostalgic Synchronic, Etudes for Prepared Digital Piano—Adam Sliwinski (New Amsterdam 70, 2015, 44 minutes)

Dan Trueman, who works as a professor of composition at Princeton University, lightly wears the trappings of his prestigious appointment. He describes himself—almost everywhere I can find—as a “composer, fiddler, and electronic musician.” Digging a little deeper, I found his Ph.D. dissertation (“Reinventing the Violin,” 1999, also from Princeton): a refreshing, erudite but unpretentious document and exactly the kind of thing I’d expect a composer to write. His promotional biography includes, almost as an afterthought, the notice that he’s been awarded prizes from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. In short, my kind of guy. (You can read a nice interview with him, written by my friend Tom Moore, here.)

In Nostalgic Synchronic, Trueman offers an ingratiating set of eight etudes for the bitKlavier, software that creates what he calls “a prepared digital piano” when harnessed by MIDI devices. Some explanation is in order. Both Henry Cowell and John Cage famously experimented with the traditional grand, altering its sound with various objects—Cage’s extensive work formalized the idea as the prepared piano, and his own joy in discovering new kinds of sounds helped him to create with it an unexpectedly vast array of different timbres for his music from the late 1930s through the mid ’50s. The bitKlavier, by contrast, alters a digital piano sample through algorithms that modify the piano sound in several ingenious ways: (1) the Nostalgic virtual preparation creates for certain notes a backward piano sound (one that begins in near silence and becomes louder)—a keyboardist’s touch can influence both the timbre and the tuning; (2) Synchronic preparations create an unpredictable repetition of the note or chord that may or may not match the rhythms of the notated music; (3) Tuning preparations allow for any imaginable temperament and include the familiar equal temperament as well as just intonation and an invented partial temperament inspired by the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle that Trueman plays. Certain notes can themselves act as controllers. (As Adam Sliwinski explained to me today, a low A in the fourth etude “toggles between two different rhythmic treatments.”) The preparations can be mobile (for instance, does the Nostalgic preparation can modify any notes desired). Touch can vary certain aspects ofthe preparations, like the reverse effect, but not others. Nevertheless, the software strikes me as very adaptable, and I’ll take some time later to explore it fully.

As a keyboard player myself, and as a writer engaged in writing a short cultural history of the piano, I’m thrilled to discover these compositions and eager to write more about them, in particular for what it tells us about the idea of the piano today. Stylistically, they traverse a wide cross-section but are often driven by a kind of post-minimalist preoccupation with pattern as well as straightforward melody with somewhat familiar-sounding harmonies. Naturally, these two fundamental aspects are often much obscured by the virtual preparations, but never so much that the whole evokes a complex terrain with few if any traditional markers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.) The expressive spectrum is wide, too, ranging from the playful No. 6, “Points among Lines (with Occasional Tantrum)” to the almost naively simple No. 3, “Song.”

I’m drawn to the pieces between these two extremes because I personally find they repay repeated hearings. No. 1, “Prelude,” unfurls from a single note through a series of harmonies and patterns made more engaging by the tuning, which seems to be just intonation. No. 2, “Undertow,” is one of the slowest, most meditative works in the set, and the various reverse sounds combine with the tuning to evoke a slowly undulating environment. I find No. 4, “Marbles,” the most attractive of all. A kind of updated version of the many Elliott Carter passages marked scorrevole, its repetitive patterns are delightfully mucked up by the Synchronic preparations and the tuning gives to the whole a sparkling, crystalline quality further heightened by frequent passages in the upper registers.

As for some others, Trueman explains that No. 5, “Wallumrød,” owes something to two sonorities from a record by the Norwegian “jazz” (his scare quotes) composer and pianist Christian Wallumrød. This one is interesting because the form is more elusive, meandering back and forth among various sonorities and textures. The eighth and final etude (“It is Enough!”) treats the evergreen Bach chorale harmonization—famously used in Berg’s Violin Concerto. The spare textures and focus on just a few recurring and relatively consonant intervals bring the set to a powerful and poignant close.

As for the performance, I previously knew Adam Sliwinski only as a percussionist with the marvelous Sō Percussion. I’m very happy to report that his keyboard chops are equally nuanced and expressive. Electronic keyboards are notoriously difficult to play with the kind of touch sensitivity one can have with an acoustic piano (a major exception is the Yamaha hybrid pianos, but these use a traditional action married with the digital samples in any case), but Sliwinski succeeds brilliantly: in my experience, only Michael Riesman (of Philip Glass’s ensemble) has been on recordings as precise but also as musical with electronic instruments.

You can learn more about the work and even obtain the software here.

CD Review: Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings—Sō Percussion (Brassland 45, 2015, 71 minutes)

This is my first review of Bryce Dessner’s music here, though I wrote about his Murder Ballades, performed by Eighth Blackbird on Cedille, in the American Record Guide. (Sadly, haste resulted in my number one sin-to-be-avoided as a writer, misspelling the poor man’s name. I acknowledge my ignominy and beg forgiveness.) Born in 1976, Mr. Dessner now makes his home in Paris. His career is a model of that happy union among a plurality of musical styles that we have witnessed in our time. No doubt his performance work with the guitar—an instrument that has traditionally bridged many musical landscapes—contributes to his sensibility. His list of compositions is impressive, and his work as a producer of new music concerts extensive.

In Music for Wood and Strings (2013), Dessner creates a 31-minute work in a series devoted to exploring the sound world, and perhaps the gestures and sensibilities, of what he calls “traditional American string music.” (My musical childhood was dominated by banjos and bluegrass music, so I hear the piece through that tradition.) It is scored for percussion and an ensemble of new instruments called chordsticks (developed in collaboration with the instrument builder Aron Sanchez). As Dessner writes, “a cross between a hammer dulcimer and an electric guitar, the four chordsticks are strung with 8 strings and tuned to two open chords so that Sō Percussion can use pencils, bows and mallets to sound either harmony, or play individual strings – creating melodies, tremolos and drones.” In addition, the bass instrument includes one fretted string that facilitates the playing of melodic lines. You can see photographs here.

The alert reader will readily intuit that two open chords does not make for varied harmonies—in that sense, at least, Wood and Strings evokes early minimalism, works like Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic (1969–1972) and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music (1975), and, contemporaneously, the processed violin music in the Cyclic Symphony (2009) by Joshua Carro. The work seems to vacillate among various drone chords—F major, C major, F Lydian, D minor strike me as particularly prominent—that are animated by all kinds of mallet and bowing techniques and, not frequently, incisive and propulsive rhythmic patterns. The resonant open strings and amplification create, within this deceptively simple framework, a great variety of timbres, the overtones often strongly present.

But the work succeeds, additionally, as an extended composition. Its nine sections are played attacca but clearly work toward an ecstatic climax in the eighth section (by far the strongest) and a quiet coda—marked by slow glissandos ascending toward the highest register of the instruments: as the only portion of the work that includes pitches outside of the open-string tunings, this moment is especially poignant. (I should mention that the CD includes the nine sections as separate tracks—presumably for “song shuffle” play—and as one long, continuous one.)

As for the performance, Sō Percussion is at their usual, extraordinary best. They are precise, highly musical and enthusiastic, and have just enough give-and-take in their realization of the rhythms to imbue Dessner’s music with the vitality that it deserves.