PIANO SONATA NO. 6: 17 GRAEME LEE PRINTS
Move Records MD 3453
Another mixed media enterprise (of sorts) has recently emerged from Michael Kieran Harvey, who has been making the best of lockdown and isolation in Tasmania. He calls this his Sonata #6 and it has taken impetus from 17 prints by Graeme Lee: an artist long associated with Harvey, I believe, as, with his wife Margaret, Lee was part of the consortium that commissioned Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 2, premiered by Harvey 22 years ago during that year’s Sydney Festival.
Or Lee could be some other fellow entirely.
At all events, here we are with a freshly-minted CD, its booklet showing us small-scale reproductions of the particular 17 Lee prints, as well as the cover one above that seems to be untitled. Along with these mini-prints, another long-time Harvey associate – Arjun von Caemmerer – has contributed 17 Leeward Epigraemes. which are accompanying aphorisms/observations/ Tasmanian haiku/apothegms which, for the more naive among us, tend to be more immediately relevant to the print’s titles than Harvey’s material. Not too surprising as the pianist/composer is employing a creative palette that fascinates for itself alone, without the need for us to find relationships or reflections in Lee’s art, not matter how clear these are to Harvey himself.
Some of the segments are epigrammatic: 46 “, 48 “, 49 ” – just long enough to make a running leap at your imagination or analytic faculty and then halt. The longest movement, Globe, comes in at 3’32” but the average length on this album sits at 2’19”. Finishing this very basic arithmetic summation, the entire work lasts for a bit over 37 minutes, or about as long as the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3.
After a while, the tracks can appear to run into each other; it’s as though they’re using the same material but you can’t discern what’s happening to it because the actual level of activity is so unrelenting. The opening Floating Item begins with a sombre atmosphere that is immediately challenged by an ensuing mix of massive chords and coruscating flights that stand as portals to the following whirlwind. Hot Rolls is notable for its relentless syncopation, like a jazz session where the initial motive is all there is, the whole moving to bass statements that don’t fade away but remain as fierce as the initial ferocity of attack.
With Pyramid, you get a fine exhibition of Harvey’s armoury. Here also, syncopation seems to be winning the day and the opening passage is jazz-influenced with a highly mobile running bass under an upper line that is just as active. Abruptly, the onward rush stops for a series of portentous single notes, prefacing the composer’s trademark forceful pointillism where the spaces shrink, the tempo picks up and the piece reverts to a kind of restrained double layer of energy. Parts of this track are astoundingly virtuosic, as though some segments have been pre-recorded with moments when you’d swear Harvey had somehow got inside the piano lid to operate on the strings despite the extreme rapidity of the simultaneous keyboard content. By contrast, the brief White Shapes III sounds like an acerbic two-part invention, the lines yielding nothing to each other.
To the all-too-tutored ear, Vase has shades of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 Three Piano Pieces in its solid opening address and sudden shifts to flamboyance. In the context of its precedents, the piece strikes you as meditative, determined to forge its path using a methodology notable for sharply-etched definition. Probably the only thing I can say about Pattern is that the surface appearance has at least two, if not three; but they leave the space very quickly.
Globe takes me back to Pyramid because it appears to be operating on two distinct sound layers. Behind the scenes is a wide-ranging arpeggio-suggesting pattern up and down the keyboard, its progress soft and recessed. In front comes a main structure of firm shapes and chords. Gradually the undercurrent becomes more prominent, a full part of proceedings. This duality continues, repeats itself, but the construct impresses for its coherence, particularly the almost grandiose power of the full-frontal matter.
At about the midway mark, at Print No. 8, Lee’s Coloured M refers to the Macdonald’s fast-food chain because the titular ‘M’ as printed here is really the company’s golden arches. For all that, the print favours green across a somewhat irregular capital M. Harvey’s contribution is stentorian, brief and highly confrontational; like the print itself, you can find a statement in the score. Old-fashioned ternary form strikes in Stage with isolated notes and chord clusters or groups at either end with another Harvey moto perpetuo on two levels in the middle; it’s like a juxtaposition of classic theatre with the wild world of action drama,
A binary pattern typifies Gap which opens with some improbably piercing and rapid work in the piano’s treble, percussive and scintillating at the same time. Then the context shifts to an active bass that sounds jazz-inflected but occupies a world of rhythmic complexity well beyond the genre’s habitual practice. The contrast is repeated and you are left with plenty of mental food to investigate what is happening in this particular space between two strata of sound and timbre.
I don’t know what to make of Oysters. It’s fast-moving, follows a lead upwards, then half-way down; you come across one of the few obvious accelerandi (or perhaps two) in the whole collection; the time-signature appears to be more regular than in all the other fast-moving pieces. We’re back with the bi-planar in Tower where the main message comes in powerful chords and even more striking trills, all setting up a suggestion or two of massiveness and truculence before the recessed sound-scene emerges in its own right, then in combination with the loud battlements plosives.
For many, the most accessible track on this CD will be Black Bowl which verges on Debussy prelude status through its employment of atmospheric motives and Harvey’s adoption of a harmonic structure that recalls something the early 20th Century French musicians would recognize. Von Caemmerer’s versicle concerns the Buddha and that’s all it takes to set you off into recollections of the Orient as seen through those ultra-refined European eyes. Mind you, it’s not affected or soft-centred, but it speaks an attractive language that, in this context, could almost be called populist.
In Item Falling, Harvey plays with a spiky brilliance, moving through his piece typified by a remarkable angularity and flawless virtuosity, including a splendid octave fragment in the treble that emerges from nowhere – just like the sudden flights of notes that briefly sparkle up and down the instrument. Even so, there’s something almost too perfect about this piece’s execution as Harvey’s articulation borders on the superhuman. But then, there have been nights when I’ve seen him enter into comparable performance states.
Yet another two-level set-up emerges in Man Running, which illustrates again some of Harvey’s methodologies, beginning with an ostinato that is deliberately irregular in metre, then accelerates using the same pattern but ends up moving somewhere else before you realise it. As in the previous piece, the pianism is exceptionally crisp as the substance settles into two high and low mobile lines, the climax emerging in energetic block chords in the right hand; if you like, you can trace a particularly dedicated jogger’s path as the composition is oddly suggestive of physical motion.
Mound II, the penultimate movement, strikes me as particularly complex in every parameter. With Harvey, time signatures are a highly moveable feast, although he often settles into a pattern, but only for a short episode; no sign of that here in a metrically confounding operating room. As in previous tracks, you experience faint sound webs overpowered by fore-fronted elliptical strokes. Above all, Harvey presents a volatile progress where nothing is allowed to settle for a moment; even the pauses bristle with potential vehemence – and it always arrives.
Finally, Fitzroy Jazz II brings back memories of nights when Harvey would set the room on a roar with his overwhelming wizardry. It follows a simple ternary format but packed with transformed tropes, onslaughts that are essentially grist to a jazz musician’s mill but here fall over each other in a brilliant cascade, including chords of great complexity and running lines in both hands that fold seamlessly into each other. Once again, you seem to be settling into a normal syncopated rhythm, only to have the edifice tilt sideways into realms where the toe-tapping hipster is all at sea. As with each track on this CD, you come across passages that both amaze and amuse for their throwaway character, as here in an ascending series of triplets of excellent dexterity.
So, what we have is yet another in the series of this great artist’s CDs for the Move company. It’s a gift to us all, the Michael Harvey Collection – one that refreshes as each album emerges. A source of delight to me is that I still have two elements in this set waiting for examination. Further, the composer is clearly as creatively fertile as ever, regardless of the many limitations necessarily inflicted over the past ten months.
This Sonata #6 breaks some time-honoured rules of Western composition; for example, by eschewing the form’s usual discursive nature in favour of a suite in which the compositional patterns – Harvey refers to the movements’ mereology – are bogglingly complex, judging by the few score samples I’ve seen. As an exploration of the piano’s potential for novel sounds and whole new paragraphs of activity, this disc of brief bursts – even for those familiar with the composer/pianist’s previous achievements – is a must-have.