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Misha Alperin, Ketil Bjørnstad & Alon Yavnai: Rolling Out New Piano Rolls


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In his pioneering works on cognitive musicology and music psychology, the late Leonard B. Meyer defended the concept of redundancy in its promotion of musical understanding, and for its important role in listeners' emotional engagement. Although the use of leitmotivs and recurrent musical events undoubtedly help listeners construe a cohesive representation of the musical discourse, the research premise of finding how music evokes affective responses provides as many different theories as there are psychoanalytic schools and philosophies.

In his seminal text Emotion And Meaning In Music (University Of Chicago Press, 1956), Meyer, a self-confessed Gestalt-influenced thinker, basically arrives at the following equation: expectation = emotion = meaning. In clear, expectations are aroused/built up by the unfolding musical events—as well as by the complex notion of style, which in itself also owes much to redundancy—and "played" by the composer who conscientiously either fulfills them or deceives them.

In fact, what Meyer suggests is that emotions are evoked when events deviate from stylistic norms—in other words, when expectations are not entirely met. Based on this proposition, one finds in cinema the most striking examples—where the audience is often lead into uneventful, peaceful purlieus by a few lingering violins, to then suddenly jump at the pounding of some disruptive thunderclaps and twisted turn of events.

Though the three recordings below in no way play on such impending, suspense-filled proceedings, a movie-like red thread nonetheless runs through each their plot, as well as between them as a artificial unit (that is, for the sake of this article only.) With each of their own different styles and way with redundancy compositionally and structurally, pianists Misha Alperin, Ketil Bjørnstad, and Alon Yavnai come out with cinematic vistas. Bjørnstad with an epic film full of majestic sceneries and breathtaking belvederes; Alperin with a delicate, chamber-esque soundtrack; Yavnai with a musical travelogue-type project.

Analyzed and critiqued through the prism of Meyer's theories, one discovers that despite each of these three outings' differently incarnated reliance on redundancy, each achieve varying, albeit debatable, degrees of "success."

Misha Alperin
Her First Dance
ECM Records

Helped by Anja Lechner's cello and Arkady Shilkloper's French horn, Alperin's Her First Dance is a charming yet dramatic album where intensity is achieved through subtle changes of textures and tonal tints instead of scorching solos and rising decibels. Whether languishing in languid, impressionist stylings like in the touching "Tiflis," or chasing scintillating high-register trills in "Jump," the Ukrainian expat never strays far from the idea of juvenile freshness and lilt the album's title alludes to.

Thanks to a clever sequencing scheme between the dreamy ballads, solo piano pieces and pastoral sounds brought by the two guests, the effect obtained by repetitive elements, such as in harmonic movements and melodic installments, fades in more organically into the overall mix. In that sense, one cannot help but draw an analogy with Erik Satie's piano music—especially in the tranquil, somnambulist pacing of his "Pieces Froides - Airs A Faire Fuir I & II" which are brought to mind during Alperin's "A New Day" and "April In February"—and, in terms of the overall approach only, the children pieces of classical masters such as Bartok, Stravinsky and Kurtag. Also very interesting is the similarity between the opening track, "Vayan," with its rather peculiar, "Flight Of The Bumblebee"-like section, and the closer, "Via Dolorosa." Disguised ditties such as these are what makes such subdued sessions real gems.

Ketil Bjørnstad & Terje Rypdal
Life In Leipzig
ECM Records

Hovering between his seabound, Aquarian programs of his ECM days and the more popular aim of his last projects for Emarcy, Bjørnstad only but occasionally revisits his serious music roots. Sided by longtime partner Terje Rypdal, a tone poet guitarist renowned for his signature, distorted sound and psychedelic use of echo, the Oslo-born pianist/composer/novel writer returns to the ECM fold with Life In Leipzig, a live set taped in Leipzig in 2005. For his part, Rypdal's impressive output as an innovating instrumentalist, as well as a commissioned composer of symphonies, chamber works and other such classical forms, continues to earn him accolades from both the experimental guitaristic wing and serious music aficionados.

Here, the program—which essentially consecrates the modal tune template packed with grand gestures and expressive build-ups to an epic status—does emote in spite its mannerisms and occasional pomposity. For example, one simply cannot feign adherence to Bjørnstad's bombastic, hyper-romanticized outpours in "The Pleasure Is Mine, I'm Sure," or the grandiloquence of "The Return Of Per Ulv." So much more gripping is Rypdal's solo feature entitled "Le Manfed/Foran Peisen," in which buzzing, swelling tones emanate from ethereal echoes to form densely menacing clouds that abruptly clear making way for a melodious chord-melody construct. Also on the quiet side is Bjørnstad's edited rendition of Grieg's beautiful "Notturno," a silky waltz vaguely reminiscent of Chopin. Either way, Leipzigers sure had a lot for their money that evening.

Alon Yavnai
Travel Notes

Drawing more from multi-ethnic, world-music influences than from the European classical repertoire, Alon Yavnai's Travel Notes is one instance where redundancy lacks the previously-mentioned deviation and twist mandatory to a fulfilling experience. Although he takes his inspiration from a surprisingly wide, trans-cultural palette of different styles spanning South America, the Middle East, North and South Africa, the former Paquito D'Rivera sideman and Yo Yo Ma collaborator's "music diary" rather lacks the depth, grip, and, interestingly enough, contrast one hopes for in a first solo outing.

Notwithstanding craftier tunes like "Yonatan," and the superb title track—which features bassist Omer Avital on oud—the remaining compositions' narrowness and sameness of feeling shadow the inherent potential of such approach to programming. At the heart of the problem—though the word seems much too harsh considering Yavnai's ambiance-setting ability and command of the keyboard—are the predominant, repetitious use of rolling, arpeggiated accompaniment figures, and lengthy vamps. On the other hand, this may be exactly the appealing factor for those looking for less taking yet still savoury performances. With its four solo piano pieces, Travel Notes amply showcases its leader. But, that being said, in light of the title track's more energetic feel, accrued contributions from the sidemen and/or guests artists would have most probably generated an edge to this rather docile, MOR record.

Tracks and Personnel

Her First Dance

Tracks: Vayan; Her First Dance; A New Day; April in February; Jump; Tiflis; Lonely in White; Frozen Tears; The Russian Song; Via Dolorosa.

Personnel: Misha Alperin: piano; Arkady Shilkloper: French horn, flugelhorn; Anja Lechner: violoncello.

Life In Leipzig

Tracks: The Sea V; The Pleasure is Mine I'm Sure; The Sea II; Flotation and Surroundings; Easy Now; Notturno (fragment); Alai's Room; By the Fjord; The Sea IX; Le Manfred/Foran Peisen; The Return of Per Ulv.

Personnel: Terje Rypdal: guitar; Ketil Bjørnstad: piano.

Travel Notes

Track Listing: Bayit; Yonatan; Yoman; Numi Numi; Travel Notes; Shir Ahava Tari; Ilha B'nit; Yakinton; Zricha; Sof.

Personnel: Alon Yavnai: piano; Omer Avital: bass, oud (5); Jamey Haddad: Percussion

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