By Edward Willoughby
Already this year, we have been treated to some spectacular offerings from a vast array of musicians hailing from far-flung places across the globe. Looking back, there are many gems that left a lasting impression, and we are taking a moment to reflect on those releases which have recently gone out into the world, as we now give them the time and consideration they deserve. As always, we are spoilt for choice with a broad community of makers producing high quality work that is often quietly startling. Here we will be looking back on three albums released earlier this year, each beautiful and distinctive in its own right, but as always pulling together those common threads.
One trend that continues to hold on into the new year is our current obsession over soft, delicate old piano with muted felt-tinged timbres, and the creaks and tics of the piano action that are revealed in high detail with this quieter aesthetic. Undoubtedly, there is an intimacy to this sound that works with so many of the colours and moods that the piano conjures up and it indeed adds texture and interest, however at times this is at the cost of dynamic interest. While the albums we are considering here have moments where this effect is used to great advantage, it can often run the risk of diluting the effect with overuse, much like playing through an entire suite in pianissimo.
In saying that, softer sounds are sometimes exactly what best serves the spirit of a composition. This is true for Philip Daniel who is able to wring out a broad range of musical outcomes on his latest offering ‘Between Us, Chapter 1.’ Using a 100-year old Steinway grand piano with felt between the hammers and the strings, the composer recorded the piano for this album in one take, yielding an end result that is excitingly spontaneous that and is anything but flaccid. The way Daniel uses quieter tones to draw in the listener relies heavily on the compositions themselves, rather than letting the dynamics and timbre do all the work. The melodies and textures themselves already have so much to say that the quiet piano style becomes a device that focuses attention.
This collection of songs it seems is but one half of a greater collection: a story told in two chapters. The first six of these tracks appearing on this release are haunting and delicate, with standout track ‘Between Us’ getting under the skin with visceral string tremolo, like the murmuring inner monologue of an uneasy mind and a fluttering heart. With a free-wheeling piano melody that contrasts, this track is bittersweet with beautiful decoration in its grace notes and runs. ‘Selfoss’ is lyrical, with solo strings bowed with slight hesitation and delicacy, while opener ‘Minor Ventures’ is fluid and spontaneous, with a wonderful dialogue between piano and strings.
Next, John Hayes wholly commits to this stripped back feel with his full-length release spanning over twelve tracks, titled ‘By The Woods.’ Absorbed in a single sitting, the stark delicacy of the piano sounds he works with do create something of a trance state, as the mind burrows in, parsing the sonic landscape for detail and nuance. If anything, these tracks feel like orphaned film scores, crying out for a visual to give them a sense of form. By themselves, they are perhaps a little too stable, with no great surprises, though they are passionate snapshots of a broad range of emotional states.
Standout track ‘Here’ sounds like the tune of a lonely wanderer and Hayes weaves a sonic narrative through his melodic storytelling that is quite compelling, while ‘Towne’ contrasts with its hazy ripples: a brooding, cumulative effect building to sensory overload. Tracks such as ‘Given’ and ‘Marin’ take us through the gamut of typical piano evocations with their melancholic, bittersweet sensibility, while the rhythmic feel of ‘Ascend’ and opener ‘Another Word for Happy’ provide counterpoint with a whimsical, carefree spirit and soft, sunny melodies.
Finally, our third album ‘Nome’ provides a welcome relief to the pallid tones of old, dying pianos. Composer Jacob Pavek invites listeners to respond and create their own world within these sonic offerings as responses to feelings and memories. From the very first moment of this album we are greeted with full, pounding chords from a bright, sonorous piano. There is a richness in the harmonics that gently bleeds between each wave of sound, with a lush density of sound so thick that one barely notices the synth and strings swelling up underneath until the piano drops away. There is a real slick sense of professionalism in the end product, with a well honed sound palette and a strong ear for producing and arranging.
While it is the craft with which Pavek constructs his work that makes a strong first impression, it is certainly not skin deep: looking more closely, the compositions themselves are beautifully wrought. The title track is a wonderfully sensitive performance on solo piano, tinged with regret, while ‘Love/Marriage’ makes use of a seductive chord progression to great effect with its beautiful turns of chromaticism. ‘Crocus’ begins with a murky sustained piano melody, as notes bleed together with a gorgeously arranged string section that is weathered, expressive, and with a real sense of spirit and soul. The final track ‘Pulse’ also leaves a lasting impression and begs for further exploration to understand its layers. There is a dense complexity to the sensations embodied in these sounds, like mixed emotions.
Inevitably, the constant flow of quality releases will always overshadow our hunger for new music, no matter how insatiable our appetites. It is startling the myriad musical possibilities that emerge from even a single genre or musical community as we see here with three very different albums, unified with a common love for piano. What a thrilling idea to think that musicians and composers continue to engage with this centuries old instrument, often bringing it into context with synths and modern production, or just as often, exploring the possibilities of the instrument itself, through prepared piano techniques, and by revisiting older instruments whose wisdom is to be revered and celebrated.