Perhaps it is the drama surrounding the Steinway sale that has put me in a piano state of mind (my last Billy Joel allusion, I promise), but this week three unique keyboard albums caught my attention.
At the top of the pile was Little Things featuring the toy piano talents of Phyllis Chen. While of miniaturized stature, the instrument’s impact under Chen’s fingers is full-sized; any misapprehension that this music is simply a novelty exercise on a child’s plaything is quickly curbed. The disc’s seven compositions—some concentrating on the instrument alone, others incorporating electronics, recorded vocals, and/or additional percussive sounds—span a compelling range of sonic worlds that dazzle with their creative use of the toy piano’s unique timbre, the distinctly audible key strokes, and variously employed extended techniques. While often playful, to my ears each piece avoided any coy winks at cuteness that the instrument might encourage. Angélica Negrón’s The Little Things, with its expanded palette of additional instruments and electronics, is a particular disc stand out.
Concentrated from another angle, Cold Blue’s release of Jim Fox’s Black Water as a CD single allows listener attention to cleanly focus on his 18-minute work for three pianos (each part covered here by Bryan Pezzone). Borrowing its title from a collection of short stories Fox was reading at the time of its composition, the work tracks a nearly relentless shimmering movement that explores the full range of the keyboard. When the lines do linger a bit in a particular area of tranquility, the mood easily turns reflective, but the bulk of Pezzone’s work across the three piano parts keeps ears pulled forward, the notes a school of silvery fish rapidly outpacing any ominous predators floating in the shadows.
Bonus points: Where thoughtfully curated collections are fascinating, hodgepodge albums with no clear through line often frustrate my listening enjoyment. I found that this singular presentation significantly strengthened my engagement with the work and easily encouraged repeat listens.
Rounding out this case of innovative ivory pressing is Timo Andres’s album Home Stretch, a three-work collection of pieces that allow the listener to view the pianist/composer’s musical mind from several intriguing and overlapping angles. In performance with the Metropolis Ensemble under the direction of Andrew Cyr, the disc opens with Andres’s own Home Stretch, a piece that embraces a colorful intricacy in the piano line rather than flashy showmanship and encourages a joyful interplay with the orchestra. Andres’s Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno and his completion/recomposition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 (Coronation) both showcase musical dialog of a slightly different ilk. His take on the Mozart in particular really held me up by the lapels. As the disc’s liner notes illuminate, here Mozart gave himself plenty of room to improvise in the original score (and neglected to specifically notate much of the left-hand part). Andres fills in with materials of his own invention, stretching the paths this way and that and inviting in his own ideas and influences with one hand, while holding Mozart’s in his other. Admittedly, the exercise may not be for everyone—one friend called it “the ultimate act of hubris”—but adore it or despise it, at the very least it’s likely to fuel some animated post-listening thinking.
Mozart / Timothy Andres: Piano Concerto No. 26 “Coronation” – 1st Movement.
Movements 2 and 3, plus Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno, are also available on the Metropolis Ensemble’s Vimeo channel.