Bait/Switch: Ian Power, Adam Zuckerman

Thursday 14 December 2023

Some music starts out as one thing and ends up another, some music appears to be about one thing when it’s really about something else. Then, there’s Ian Power’s Ave Maria: Variations on a Theme by Giacinto Scelsi (Carrier), a piece whose title belies the complex switches in perspective on its subject matter, beyond an act of homage or an essay in style. The piece, written in 2009, was recorded last year by pianist Anne Rainwater. Scelsi’s prayer is one of a set of three he composed in 1972, a typically austere work of repeated phrases initialy written for solo voice. Rainwater is indeed obliged to sing a rendition of Scelsi’s original piece at the start, while accompanying herself in unison on the keyboard. The idea of ritual as a task, and its associated demands, is already established here, with a secluded, unpolished recording that draws out the imperfections in her voice and her instrument, with the soft creak and thud of the piano’s hammers. The subsequent variations play on the obsessive side of Scelsi’s art, with the piano alone repeating the prayer in harmonisations that get thrown against an insistently reiterated high pitch, before condensing into loud clusters of sound echoed by forceful use of the pedal on the lower strings. The strangest variation is not marked as a variation at all, but as an Interlude that suddenly wrenches the composition into a different focus. The pianist is required to repeat the theme, but to press the keys silently. Background becomes foreground in a breathless negative space, substance made of incidental noise, with the added jeopardy of sounding a note by mistake: any such mistake must then be repeated thirty-six times. The interlude becomes a fraught hiatus in the music. Scelsi always demanded an inner calm for his music, presumably to heard it as well as play it, and this pairs with the experience that even his finest music can be a bit of a chore. In Power’s version, penitence and apprehension is shared by performer and audience. Even with frailties mercilessly exposed, Rainwater’s playing remains both strong and dutiful in equal measure.

It’s telling that after repeated listenings to Adam Zuckerman’s STARPERMEABLE (Nueni) I still flip back and forth between thinking he’s too precious and he’s too sincere. A composition for “at least three musicians and processed field recording playback”, it makes no effort towards momentum, direction or movement. Each of its eighteen short sections are made of delicate and languorous melodies slowly overlapping to produce clouds of sound that veil the internal movement of pitch, so that its changes require closer attention. Each of these moments is separated by silence, confounding attempts to find continuity or coherence. The musicians frequently hum together, adding both to their serenity and our distance from them. The field recordings are noticeable only by the absence of the musicians: there are three interludes of six minutes each, making nearly half the piece’s entire length, where the only sound is that of the open air at almost imperceptible volume. Contradictions abound: it’s both too natural and too contrived, both seeking to inspire interest by actively repelling it. It starts to resemble Scelsi in that way it needs a mind at peace to be receptive to it, but whether for contemplation as an idea or as a phenomenon remains a mystery. The musicians do play very prettily though, while it lasts.