When John Cage invented the prepared piano to accompany a dance performance, the idea was to mimic the sound of a percussion ensemble in a space too small to accommodate one. With his own work, French pianist Benoit Delbecq has taken the idea of the prepared piano further. For Delbecq, using a highly selective and idiosyncratic system of preparations along with an open form of composition, the prepared piano is seemingly transformed into an ensemble—an unaltered piano accompanied by one or more percussion instruments.
Delbecq’s musical vision is on full display in The Weight of Light, a fascinating solo album recorded in the otherwise inauspicious month of March, 2020. Delbecq’s sound on the recording is grounded in a pulse-based, elastic sense of time that he constructs out of repeated patterns of independent and layered rhythmic motifs. He’s developed his own form of graphic notation employing circles and calligrams—words arranged to form shapes or images—to denote these musical structures, which he conceives of in terms of proportions or other relationships between numerical objects.
Delbecq’s method of piano preparation is to insert objects, most often wooden sticks of varying hardness, into a handful of strings in a way that affects only the keys playing the rhythmic patterns. As a result, he lends the piano the sound of a gamelan, as on the pieces Family Trees, Anamorphoses and Pair et Impair, or of a drum kit, as on the opening The Loop of Chicago. On top of all this he plays jazz-inflected, chromatic or modal melody lines drawn predominantly from the unprepared part of the piano. To hear it is to imagine one is hearing two or more players or overdubs, but it’s all done by Delbecq alone, in real time. It’s sleight of hand, literally, in the form of hand-crossings and striking keys already depressed. But Delbecq also can play directly and in a largely conventional manner, as he does on the album’s closing track, Broken World, a freely elegiac and highly affective quasi-ballad.