These three releases complete the Another Timbre label's Piano Series alongside pianist John Tilbury's and electronicist Sebastian Lexer's Lost Daylight
(2010). Taken together, the four very different releases in the series pose questions about the modern role of the piano, particularly when the instrument is prepared in increasingly complex ways, and combined with electronics in the preparations or elsewhere. As well as posing questions, the albums also illuminate possible answers and avenues which would be fruitfuland interestingto explore. Most of all, they make compelling listening.
The Middle Distance
The Middle Distance has a cover shot of a barren snowscape which combines with its rather chilly track titles to give an initial impression of bleakness. The music within could easily have lived up to that impression. The two pianos, both prepared in some way, with Philip Thomas on the right channel and Chris Burn on the left, only occasionally produce conventional piano sounds. For much of the time the prepared piano sounds are in the upper register, sometimes having a metallic brittleness about them that could become wearing. The separation of the two pianists allows the listener to hear their contrasting contributions as they indulge in a fractured conversation, exchanging brief phrases or gestures.
The saving grace of the album, which gives the music warmth and humanity, and makes it required listening, is the placing of bassist Simon H. Fell dead centre between the pianos. Fell seems to act as mediator between the twoor as the glue that holds everything together. Either way, he does a fine job. Curiously, for an album that forms part of a piano series, it is the bass that repeatedly takes the limelight. Fell does not play the role of conventional bassist, instead being an equal participant always ready to move things forward when the need arises. Rather than the bass filling the space between the pianos, it often seems that the opposite is true, that the pianos are peripheral to the bass.
As the album progresses, it increasingly gels as a trio performance as the players seem to warm to the task. The closing track, "Looking back, remembering little," is its highlight, featuring some full bodied playing from Thomas offset by more restraint from Burn, with Fell holding things together. This is an intriguing album that stands up well to repeated listening.
Heartland is the only one of the four Piano Series releases to feature a lone pianist. At least, that is what the album's credits tell us; whilst listening to this music, some may double-check that Magda Mayas was actually playing alone. On occasions here, she generates such a variety of sounds that it is difficult to believe they all emanate from one woman plus one piano.
The album was produced by Tony Buck (drummer with The Necks), with whom Mayas plays in an occasional duo. The sounds that Mayas produces combine recognisable piano tones with a range of percussive effects that are achieved by preparations or by scraping or striking various parts of the instrument's structure.
Whereas other releases here contrast the playing of two pianists, Mayas' own music alone contains a mass of contrasts. She frequently produces passages of play in which she adopts two different voices and conducts a dialogue with herself.
The real success of Heartland lies not just in the sounds that Mayas produces, but in the way that they are put together into a coherent and compelling performance. Across its two extended tracks, the energy and invention of the album never flags. It maintains a forward momentum that draws the listener in. Surprises are never far away, though. So, midway through "Slow Metal Skin" is an extended passage that most closely resembles the sound of a firework display. Entertaining stuff.
Stephen Cornford / Samuel Rodgers
Turned Moment, Weighting
Another Timbre Byways
Once again, Another Timbre's Byways imprint lives up to its reputation for delivering stimulating and exciting cutting-edge explorations. This 45-minute CD-R pairs the piano feedback of sound sculptor Stephen Cornford with the slightly more conventional piano experiments of Samuel Rodgers. The two met and collaborated when they were both students at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England. This music was recorded there is April 2009.
Unlike on The Middle Distance, above, there is no separation of the two between left and right channels. That would have served no useful purpose, as the two players sound distinct enough to easily tell who is doing what. Their playing coalesces into a unified whole, with ebb and flow between piano, feedback and objects. If "cutting-edge explorations" makes the music here sound daunting or dry, be reassured that it is neither. On the contrary, it is engaging, enthralling, entertaining and enjoyable.
Apparently, this release contains only a fraction of the music that Cornford and Rogers recorded over a productive weekend. It must be hoped that more of that sees the light of day.
Tracks and Personnel
The Middle Distance
Tracks: Looking ahead, seeing nothing; Not with the fire in me now; All moved; Never knew such silence; Looking back, remembering little.
Personnel: Chris Burn: piano (left); Philip Thomas: prepared piano (right); Simon H. Fell: double bass.
Tracks: Shards; Slow Metal Skin.
Personnel: Magda Mayas: piano.
Turned Moment, Weighting
Tracks: Weighted; Moment; Turning.
Personnel: Stephen Cornford: piano feedback; Samuel Rodgers: piano & objects.