5 Klavierstücke is Can co-founder Irmin Schmidt’s first album since 2015’s career-spanning Electro Violet, and finds the composer – ably assisted by Gareth Jones – playing not just one, but two pianos on five spontaneous compositions.
Well, I say spontaneous; one of Schmidt’s pianos, a Pleyel, was prepared following the teachings of his onetime mentor John Cage, whose various prepared piano compositions over a roughly 25 year period are perhaps the best exemplars of adding nuts, bolts and all sorts of contraptions to piano wires to disrupt their typical sound. It is a painstaking approach that few have the energy and artistic vision to undertake, since one needs to almost surrender one’s compositional ideas to the piano before striking a single note; unprepared, a composer may, in their head, create an expectation of what a song might sound like – when prepared, the composer cannot make those assumptions, for the piano will never behave precisely the same each time unless the precise preparations are followed each and every time. It is one manifestation of Cage’s lifelong obsession with chance interventions into the composition process.
Alongside the prepared piano, Schmidt also used a Steinway, his instrument not that much older than the octogenarian composer himself, and the five tracks alternate between both instruments, the Steinway or the prepared Pleyel. Aside from natural studio ambience, no further gimmicky or sonic trickery was employed, even though at times it’s hard to convince your ears that could possibly be the case.
Though I’m generally not a fan of the track-by-track album dissection approach these days, the five pieces here seem to justify individual analysis on this occasion. These are songs that contain a quiet drama, a composer’s natural instinct for melody and the white space in which the notes can float, uninterrupted, unadorned or adorned depending on which piano is being used. They may be formed from complex treatments, but the results are surprisingly sparse, bringing to mind Chopin’s observation that “simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes, and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”
Delicate, filigree playing gives way to noisier, percussive sections from the prepared piano. At times, the repeated prepared bass note sounds like a very meditative jazz rhythm section that’s been asked to wait it out in the background, or notes that sound like the extended echoes of a gong.
Rain-like sounds and insistent rumbling infiltrate the natural resonance of the sporadic unprepared piano notes. After a while, the piece opens out into a section that sounds like a clanking Hang pattern, one that is intensely melodic but unrecognisable from a piano.
Percussive, low-register sketches are coupled with high-register sounds not unlike a cymbal. Loud shards of sound arrive without expectation, almost as if someone is driven to emphatically striking the side of the piano.
Beginning with churning, bass-heavy arpeggios reminiscent of some of Throbbing Gristle or Dome’s most regimented work, the addition of sprinkles of unaltered piano ends up making this sound like some sort of heavily-shrouded exotica or a spontaneous jazz cop theme. ‘IV’ accelerates toward the end into a thunderous, panic-inducing conclusion that leaves nothing but cavernous reverb in its wake.
This is vaguely reminiscent of Jacques Louissier’s interpretations of Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes or a Sunday afternoon Bill Evans session, all gentle, delicate melody and harmonics. That’s the case until the very end, when a clangorous discordancy comes to the fore to bring this outstanding, understated album to a conclusion.
(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence
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