Xenia Pestova Bennett: Atomic Legacies

Saturday 22 February 2020

I’ve heard Xenia Pestova Bennett’s piano playing on various occasions, but not heard of her work as a composer until now. Her new release Atomic Legacies features two substantial works focused on the magnetic resonator piano, an instrument invented by Andrew McPherson about ten years ago. The basic principle is similar to Alvin Lucier’s Music For Piano With Magnetic Strings, which requires the pianist to place e-bows directly on the instrument’s strings. The magnetic resonator piano has developed the idea into a dedicated set of magnetic drivers that can sound each string on a piano at the pianist’s control while remaining at the keyboard. Pestova Bennett has been working with this instrument for a long time now (I remember a performance at Cafe Oto a few years back) and developed a deep understanding of the instrument and how to turn its novelties into a vehicle for musical expression.

My memories of the Oto gig are hazy. It’s easy to get dazzled by the gee-whiz factor, both the visual impact of a grand piano fitted with a cybernetic rack of wires and relays and the aural effects of bowed piano sounds, floating harmonics with no discernible attack or source. It’s harder to get past this immediate impression to find a lasting musical experience. Before putting this record on I wondered how well it work as a purely musical experience, especially as the composer is the performer, who may have gotten a little too close to the process to perceive the product.

Turns out it works damn well. Pestova Bennett’s highly skillful playing reflects how much time and dedication has been invested in this project, producing a sophisticated blend of bowed and ‘normal’ sounds that work together to produce a wide range of colours and moods. The first piece is a five-part suite for solo piano, Glowing Radioactive Elements, which begins with characteristic spacey harmonics before adding struck notes, transforming the instrument into a self-contained piano-with-strings ensemble. The amount of control possible over the bowed sounds becomes more and more evident through the piece and a large part of this must be due to Pestova Bennett’s technique. Just when you think you’re used to the sustained resonances, she reminds you of the otherworldliness of the instrument by playing arpeggiated harmonics over a single note, or reverts to bowed sounds of alien purity. “Plutonium” begins in such a way before expanding into a late-romantic rumbling of struck notes with atypical harmonization. Sounds get complex, as with the following movement’s overtone fantasia on a slow, two-note ostinato. The brief “Radon” exploits the highest notes to create sounds that seem electronic. The music dazzles as much by its twists and turns as by pure sonic surprise.

Things get even better in the second piece. Atomic Legacies combines piano with the Ligeti Quartet, string instruments joined by a steely consort of viols where the disjunction of bowed sounds and harmonic nodes create a wonderfully evocative entanglement of suspended sounds. There’s nothing show-offy about this music as it broods and pulses with its internalised complexities and contradictions. The sounds continually evoke a range of allusions and references without ever settling into a defined state; a fine mix of surface and substance. Just beautiful.