AMN Reviews: Benoit Delbecq – The Weight of Light [Pyroclastic Records]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Andrea Massaria & Clementine Gasser – The Spring of My Life [Amirani AMRN053]

Haiku have long elicited fascination on the part of Western poets and other artists who’ve been taken with their allusiveness and conciseness. How well their subtleties of form and content have been understood outside of Japan is a matter of controversy, but in some respects this doesn’t matter, at least to the extent that they’ve inspired independent works of art. With The Spring of My Life Andrea Massaria and Clementine Gasser literally translated a set of haiku into musical performances that are uniquely their own.

The two bring similar backgrounds to the music. Massaria, here on guitar, electronics and effects, is active in Trieste and Venice; he studied classical guitar before moving into jazz, improvisation, and other experimental fields. Gasser, from Switzerland, also studied classical music and jazz. Together, their playing shows an adventurousness tempered by a sense of structure.

For this set of pieces Massaria and Gasser took a series of haiku by the classic poet Kobayashi Issa and crafted mixed graphic/verbal scores around them. Like the three-line, seventeen-syllable poems, the individual pieces on The Spring of My Life are succinct—the shortest is under two minutes and longest is a still economical six and three-quarters minutes long. Also like haiku, these pieces work through suggestion and indirection. Each is an atmospheric vignette focusing on the interaction of space and color. Massaria and Gasser never crowd each other, but instead leave open spaces for each voice to develop unhurriedly. There are piano-like cascades over stabs of cello, uncluttered lines finely weaving in and around each other. Massaria in particular brings a wide palette of colors to his playing, suggesting at various times the sounds of the harp, organ, steel drums, and more. As this stubborn winter gives way to spring, The Spring of My Life makes for a reinvigorating soundtrack.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Roman Haubenstock-Ramati – Konstellationen [Kairos 0015003KAI]

0015003kai_haubenstock_webcoverAs sculpture, a mobile presents an ever-changing profile to the viewer, its constituent elements constantly rearranging themselves in relation to each other and creating new composite forms with every disturbance in the surrounding environment. As early as the 1932 composition of Henry Brant’s Mobiles for unaccompanied flute, the idea of the internally-reorganizing work had been imported into music from sculpture. Among the most prolific composers of the musical analogue of the mobile was Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (1919-1994).

Haubenstock-Ramati’s life and career reflected the tragedies and breakthroughs of 20th century European political and musical history. Born in Krakow, Poland, he and his family fled the country after the German invasion in 1939. From there Haubenstock-Ramati went to Lemberg (present-day Lviv in Ukraine), where he studied composition with Józef Koffler, a former student of Schoenberg’s, and graduated from the Lemberg Music Academy. In addition to the more orthodox dodecaphony he studied with Koffler, Haubenstock-Ramati was attracted as well to the music of Webern, which he’d been introduced to while still in Poland. Returning to Poland after the war, Haubenstock-Ramati next moved to Israel and then to Vienna in 1957, where he continued to develop his own unique ways of organizing musical sounds.

Konstellationen collects five different works ranging from 1948’s String Trio No. 1 to Morendo for tape and bass flute and Pluriel for string quartet, both of which were composed in 1991. Much of the work is based on what Haubenstock-Ramati called “dynamic closed form”—determined sets of constituent elements whose interactions are significantly indeterminate. In a sense, Haubenstock-Ramati’s “closed form” functions like an open field—a bounded unit allowing for multiple paths always subject to the possibility of deviation and change. Konstellationen, for example, which in a version for twelve-piece chamber ensemble appears in three iterations on the disc, is a graphic composition made up of a set of geometric forms set out in twenty-five slightly varying patterns. Aggregates of these forms repeat throughout the score, but in irregular cycles, making for a texturally-driven piece in constant flux as individual instruments enter and exit independently. Haubenstock-Ramati’s tendency to use overlapping cycles of differing lengths appears as early the String Trio, an expressive twelve-tone work bearing a resemblance to Second Viennese School polyphony, but which is nonetheless permeated by an unorthodox handling of musical material. Multiple 4 for oboe and horn, dating from the 1960s, is a fixed graphic score that juxtaposes gestures for each instrument in sparse interaction; rather than creating tension through superimposed, irregular cycles, the work derives its dynamic force from the collisions of the contrasting timbres of reed and brass.

The pieces in this collection are striking examples of composition as pure musical plasticity. Plasticity is a property usually associated with the visual, and especially sculptural, arts; its application to Haubenstock-Ramati’s compositions is appropriate not only because Haubenstock-Ramati was directly inspired by Alexander Calder’s sculptures, but because to a significant extent, Haubenstock-Ramati’s compositions capture and translate into musical language the intricate, quasi-epicyclic motions of Calder’s sculptures. Haubenstock-Ramati did this through structural means, by setting out elements that can be put into motion against each other through contrasts and coincidences of periodicity or of timing generally. Not unlike the movement animating Calder’s sculptures, in fact. And just as with mobile sculpture, plasticity in musical terms just is the dynamic relationships realized through the interplay of forms; the generating principle behind much of Haubenstock-Ramati’s work is exactly that: Forms moving dynamically with, against and through one another. To a large extent, these works’ dynamic is their structure. The work isn’t realized until its repertoire of forms is put in motion, constructing as it moves larger scale forms by virtue of the asymmetries inherent in its variable timing.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Microtub – Star System [SOFALP544]

sofa544This is the second release from Microtub, the trio of Robin Hayward, Kristoffer Lo and Martin Taxt playing works in just intonation for their microtonal tubas. For Star System the group interpret two compositions notated as three-dimensional, color-coded graphic scores meant to provide spatial representations of the microtonal tuba’s compass and harmonic capabilities.

The title track—the score to which is reproduced as an image on the CD’s cover—consists of long tones laid out as unisons, octaves, and simple harmonies built on or implying a major triad. As the three tubas’ lines double each other and overlap, higher overtones emerge to enrich the sound and fill out the harmonies. Square Dance, like Star System a slowly unfolding piece of about twenty minutes’ duration, sets up a chord progression over pedal points, its suspended chords taking on a hymn-like quality at times, the tubas somehow mimicking the sound of an organ.

Microtub is minimal music sui generis—a sonically rich aggregate built up of deceptively simple elements.