Easy atmospheres


Bill Canty

Move Records MCD 605

I can’t honestly admit to knowing anything about Bill Canty; not unexpected, that, as the composer has carved out his career in more popular fields than those I frequent. This CD is a suite of 12 pieces for piano, performed by the composer and using no orthodox piano but rather altered, piano-simulating sounds by means of digital/electronic interference and manipulation. It turns out that the performer/composer is true to his promise and lives up to his descriptors and extract titles. I don’t think there’s much to the whole exercise beyond a satisfaction in arranging sounds into appealing formats. The question is: appealing to whom?

A further problem with this CD pressing is that the tracks that come up on my system are completely unrelated to Canty’s efforts but are entered under the name of Phil Broikos and one of his chef d’oeuvres, A Day in Music. I know what I’m hearing isn’t Broikos because I listened to some of A Day; the things you do for certainty. Anyway, Canty begins with a Fantasia which is a meandering piece of mood music – very euphonious and playing pretty games with arpeggios rolling across the keyboard. It’s all very pleasant and diatonic with bass pedals and a spoonful of upper register tinkling, and it leads straight into Glissade that has a metrically regular Alberti treble with some portamenti between notes, as well as an assortment of downward-heading scales. It starts in the minor and moves to a relieving major about half-way through, but doesn’t stay there long. Dollops of notes are sprinkled across the constant Alberti figure with accompanying bands of sustained bass before we revert to the glissandi/portamenti of the opening and a slowing down.

Immediatelt we are in Rubato land where the continuous quaver figure sustains the forward propulsion but with lots of the promised slowing down and make-up acceleration; a constellation of overheard notes almost meld into a melody, the texture suggestive of extra-terrestrial illustrative music such as you get in programs from NASA or organizations determined to sell you the idea that outer space is benevolent rather than the horrifying chaos we know it to be. But the emphasis is on atmosphere and the one-word titles leave interpretation very open, as you can see in the following Sanctuary. Canty makes reference to the bellbirds in Kew’s Studley Park and you hear plenty of bird-suggestive sounds; not the multi-coloured flourishes of Messiaen but little two-note oscillations piercing a brooding multi-layered backdrop. And that, unfortunately, brings to my mind suggestions of the Picnic at Hanging Rock soundtrack without the interference of Beethoven or pan-pipes.

Then there’s a change of pace as we enter Thirteens which Canty has based on the odd time-signature that opens Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; all credit to Oldfield for creating a lasting album on his lonesome and all that nonsense but, as I read it, his initial track is in 7/8 which may have some mathematical relationship to 13 but I can’t compute it. As things turn out, a ‘straight’ piano plays the underpinning pattern throughout with superimposed dribbling until about the 3’30” mark where the unusual tempo dissipates and we are left with upward scales and growling bass sound bands. The pattern returns just prior to the turn into Droplets which has a fine imitation of that phenomenon in its treble, something like a cross between a finely-tuned marimba and a glockenspiel tinkling away above the (by now) inevitable bass layers that slowly shift. Here, Canty refers to his ‘fascination with controlled randomness’ – which suggests that he is employing some sort of program. But I found the actual musical progress loaded with extraneous gestures like downward-moving rapid portamenti, again suggestive of documentary soundtracks for visions of the moons of Saturn.

Statement begins with a sort of motive comprising a segmented scale that initially moves up, then down, while around it are shadows, delayed repetitions that offer a nimbus of distortions that have immediate reference to the base material. A sort of mental oasis follows in which nothing solid happens but the atmosphere is packed with soft gamelan-type patterns and fragments of what has been secondary in importance so far. The segmented scale returns, now at a higher pitch but with the same nimbus surrounding it. Trance opens with a repeated note – in stereo – being surrounded by accretions and attempted distractions like a heavy counter-rhythm in open 5ths. The repeated note falls in pitch step-wise, this motion setting the activity level for the surrounding matter; the jazzy 5ths continue to interrupt but most of the piece’s colour comes from swathes of texture that offer continuity of effect rather than variety.

In Rebound, we have a reaction to the bouncing of a ping-pong ball which is aurally depicted in the middle of the customary swathes. Once more, the electronic transformations suggest both the Orient and the extra-terrestrial, although I liked the overlapping bouncing lines. But it passes and we are called into the soundscape of Immersion, where gentle descending scales close down into a subterranean sound-wall with isolated piano notes setting off those various downward slides into the depths. Some upper register washes provide a counter-balance in this slow-moving celebration of stasis that comes to a halt before Lucid comes into view with a reversion to middle-layer Alberti pattern-making. The difference here is that Canty offers a tune in the forefront of his texture. This is unexpected and, while he gives it two or three airings, eventually it is abandoned for arpeggios and atmospherics. However, this ternary piece brings back its continuous quaver underpinning and another version of the melody which is not so striking this time around.

Finally, Canty offers a Toccata which is headed by a ‘straight’ piano line but one surrounded by plenty of echoing effects. Soon enough, a ponderous bass layer emerges before the piano and its overlays and mimicries takes off on a pretty predictable set of excursions that wear out their welcome because of an absence of rhythmic variety, something you won’t find in pretty much every toccata from Buxtehude onward. After some grandiose crescendo work, Canty arrives at an affirmative major key conclusion.

Each of the suite’s movements lasts about 5 minutes but, as indicated, most of them run into each other and sometimes you are hard pressed to find a delimiting point, The same can be said about the internal material of many of the pieces. Canty has a definite idea for each one of them, developing or simply stating and restating an idea to give aural sense to his particular title. Yet you come back to the over-arching question of: what is achieved by this exercise? Much of it is harmonically trite and melodically bereft; apart from Thirteens, you look in vain for rhythmic imagination or challenge. While the composer rings changes on his keyboard with transformations of a piano’s normal sounds, little of what we hear has the distinctive feature of novelty. At the end, it strikes me that this is a music that is not to be subjected to analysis but enjoyed as background to one’s own mental ramblings, or as support for rather trippy visual stimulation. Rather than falling in with the CD’s generation process, I’ve unfortunately taken on the cast of Shakespeare’s Cassius – and I don’t mean lean and hungry.

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