PIANO INSIDE OUT
Move Record MD 3391
A little under a month from now, another Australian pianist based in London, Zubin Kanga, will be taking part in the ludicrously small amount of serious music offered at the Melbourne Festival with Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and a Cyborg Pianist program that sounds – from the little information available – like a mutation into something even newer and stranger of the kind of music to be heard on this adventurous CD. Kanga plays seven works, most of them by names that don’t register with me. One that does is Elliott Gyger, Senior Lecturer in Composition at the University of Melbourne. Sydney composer Nicholas Vines rings some bells, if faint ones, in my memory; Daniel Rojas, David Young, Marcus Whale and Anthony Moles are simply names; Rosalind Page I’ve heard of but none of her music. So this recording came as a voyage into the unknown, for the most part.
In fact, this set of works is as close to up-to-the-moment as you could expect, yet another indication of the Move label’s commitment to Australian art and to contemporary music-making in particular. The pieces by Gyger, Vines and Rojas all date from 2011, the remainder of the content from the following year. Despite their near-contemporaneity of production, each work is couched in an individual voice.
Gyger’s . . . out of obscurity, written for Kanga, begins both on the keyboard and in the piano, bringing into force a kind of balance between normal sound production and string-plucking, with some passages of hand-muting for variety. The piece is both hectic in a well-ordered fashion and yet non-aggressive in atmosphere, unrelievedly active for the performer who is on the move without a pause, the complexity heightened by a liberal use of trills . In fact, there is one stretch around the 4-minute point where I can’t see how Kanga achieves physically what he does with a vigorous right-hand and stopped plucked notes in the left. Then, abruptly, the running pattern of notes stops and the piece becomes a soft musing on timbres: the under-the-lid work more metallic in character, the trills all-consuming, the notes arrayed in pointillist fashion before a fine epilogue of soft chords surrounded by a nimbus of string manipulation techniques, as the work’s emotional tenor moves into a cloud-like penumbra before one final, cheeky reference to the busy opening. More than most of its type, Gyger’s demanding construct is both emotionally sympathetic and unfailingly interesting.
Nicholas Vines’ Uncanny Valley opens with a definite stretch of scene-setting, again using the inside and outside of Kanga’s instrument, the shadowy sound-meshes punctuated by abrupt wood-knocks. The intention is to investigate ‘a strange perceptual phenomenon in the fields of robotics and animation’, the composer writes. A set of variations depicts – as far as it can – an industrial robot, a humanoid robot, a stuffed animal, a corpse, a zombie, a bunraku puppet, eventually this species evolution winding up with a human being. The style of writing suggests a world of references – at one point, Boulez without the dynamic leaps; later, a whiff of Cowell and a smidgen of Nancarrow; the grandfather figure of Cage presiding over it all. Vines’ variation-shapes in the music itself escaped me, although the obvious indications of a change in attack and atmosphere are hard to miss. Nevertheless, for this non-initiate, the distinction between the dead and the following un-dead proved hard to decipher, although I suspect the zombie had more treble register action. Vines’ piano sounds more prepared than that in the preceding Gyger work – some paper or cardboard flutters in the instrument’s mid-register; but then, it also seems to be in operation without any notes being played. And for the final peroration – an ascent out of the valley of polymorphs to the triumph of humanity – any preparedness disappears in a near-Messiaenic ecstasy that makes a vividly affirmative conclusion to the longest work by far on this CD. This performance is remarkably fluent and the recording exceptionally vivid with a generous reverberation and vital detail in the instrument’s output.
Daniel Rojas follows the lead (so far) by beginning inside and outside the piano. His Entre Bajos y Alturas (Between Basses and Heights) has three discrete movements and, despite its employment of contemporary sound-production techniques, reveals a Latin-American impressionistic basis. The first segment, Vastos Llanos (Vast Tablelands) uses what sound like folk-song melodies surrounded by a swirl of plucked bass reverberances and horizon-suggestive washes of sound. Without a break, the Ochos Entre Dos (Eights Between Twos) hits the tango rhythm but doesn’t actually stay with it; rather, ringing changes on its rhythmic possibilities before coming to a percussive climax beyond anything Piazzolla could have imagined. This is discarded for a salsa pulse – or something close to it – in the last section, Garras y Abrazos (Clutches and Embraces) which employs dance-rhythms to a somewhat scouring end, the language percussive and repetitious with a bristling ferocity before a sudden hiatus where the composer moves to the prepared section of his piano for a relieving moment.
Not Music Yet by David Young is a graphically notated score, but not the traditional form beloved of Bussotti, Feldman and their confreres. It is a water-colour (reproduced in the CD booklet) and Kanga passes across it three times, performing in turn one of the three dominant colour-bands on the canvas. He uses three sound-manufacturing devices for the three spectra: inside the piano for the black, the keyboard for the white elements, and mallets for the blue. Naturally enough, the work’s progress is as much dependent on Kanga as it is on Young’s painting-score. Who’s to pick holes in the process? The performer’s subjective response is unarguable, even if Young insists that the work offers a paradox between precision and freedom. So it undoubtedly does, and so it always has. But I particularly liked the player’s conclusion: stopping in the middle of a propulsive action, as though he’d suddenly come up against the painting’s frame.
The disc’s shortest piece is Marcus Whale’s Errata which, unlike its companion works, focuses on a limited range of options: repeated chords, repeated notes and an unsettling air of nervousness until the work’s climax – a sequence of right-hand trills above a series of wide-leaping interval jumps in the bass – before a reversion to, and an amplification of, the disturbing semi-placidity of the opening, unnaturally sustained by the use of two e-bows (electromagnets) placed on the strings. What the title refers to as mistakes is explained by Whale as ‘entropic slippages in practice, in machinery . . ‘ His piece gives a striking representation of matters falling in and out of sequence, of chaos avoided, and of the circularity of error.
The painter Imants Tilers and the philosophy of Heidegger inspired Rosalind Page’s Being and Time II: Tabula Rasa. Another three-section work, the composer follows the artist’s painting (also reproduced in the booklet) from left to right: the first part, remember me, reacting to an 18th century goblet, has Baroque flourishes colouring a mobile contrapuntal invention-type texture; the second part, late horizons according to the composer’s vision, asks how we ‘navigate the abyss’ – presumably, with plenty of pauses for thought and moderated musing; the last stage, cosmos, proposes an environment of ‘the diaspora of constellations’, where time is suspended and music is reduced to well-spaced events – consciousness pinging against the darkness.
Lastly, Diabolic Machines by Anthony Moles opens for all the world like a traditional 12-tone work, the row announced in an angular octave statement. But it develops into something of an old-fashioned exploitation of piano virtuoso sonorities, repeated toccata motifs topped and bottomed by brief reflecting bursts of action. The moto perpetuo stops as Moles takes us into a slower version of the opening where two invention-type lines run against each other to a muted, sustained-pedal wash into stasis. Naturally, the ferment returns, the lines positioned at either end of the keyboard and building to a fine climax using the opening violin-tuning motif from Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz as a constructional tool before a sudden cut back to reveal the invention lines very soft and out of sync at the top of the keyboard, Moles’ machines reaching a futile, inoperative demise. It’s the sort of work that Michael Kieran Harvey delights in, here carried off with considerable brio and a keen awareness of its opportunities for variety in a pretty tight structure.
You get an awful lot of bang for your buck – literally and financially – in this recording and the great asset is that Kanga makes a fine exponent of each work. He doesn’t over-emphasize the obvious, letting the multiform methods of making new sounds appear essential to the music’s developmental path. And, just as important as the interpreter’s skill, each work speaks in a characteristic voice; these writers are not all preaching from the same instruction manual. If you’re going to hear Kanga at the Festival, this goes a fair way towards exposing his abilities in handling difficult music and finding the best in it.