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.
Collages & Dispersions, a solo recording by Canary Islands pianist and sound artist Paco Rossique, is an atmospheric recording that presents the sonic portrait of an invented, artificially resonant space in which small metal objects are tossed about in a humming wind.
For Rossique, a soundscape is above all a work of imagination midwifed by technological means at the service of a sensitive ear. He deftly layers field recordings, prepared piano and electronic treatments into eight interconnected, timbral compositions that emphasize the contrasts between an intermittent low drone and the sharper-edged sounds of prepared piano and objects. The pieces often feature a counterpoint of electronic washes and clanging metal occasionally giving way to recognizable pitches and tone clusters. The voices of birds and humans appear sporadically, grounding this otherwise otherworldly audio landscape in the concrete sounds of the everyday as filtered through Rossique’s unique sensibility.
This is a sensibility that doesn’t limit itself to the manipulation of sound. The eight tracks are held together in a kind of anti-narrative by virtue of a series of prose poems and visual images, all by Rossique, each one of which is associated with an individual track. These verbal and pictorial tableaux, like their audio counterparts, display a dreamlike logic rooted in the juxtaposition of unlikely elements—a convulsive beauty, as the Surrealists would have it.
Portuguese pianist/composer Simao Costa’s new CD explores the multiplicity of sounds available to a piano that has been prepared, electronically altered or supplemented, and even played in its native state.
The unifying theme that emerges from the seven tracks collected here is the richness of the contrasts that bind and separate the muted, low-sustain sounds of the prepared piano on the one hand, and the ringing tones and harmonies of the instrument unmodified on the other. Putting the two in motion with and against each other is something Costa does effectively throughout the set. Often, the music will take on the character of a gamelan or detuned carillon nested within resonantly pedaled left hand figures. On top of it, Costa will frequently layer in the acute hum of feedback and droning electronics. These timbral experiments are largely cerebral in affect, but surprisingly beautiful impressionistic passages are liable to erupt unexpectedly, particularly on the fourth and sixth tracks. The last and longest track shifts attention away from contrasts in timbre and resonance and focuses instead on the possibilities of rhythmic variations within a pulse, its deliberately narrow range of pitches wrapped in the buzzing and rattling sounds of distressed metal.