Keyboards without Ego: Golub, Svensson, Tolimieri

Saturday 17 December 2022

“Who cares if you listen?” becomes something of a Zen koan when listening to these three collections of keyboard pieces: all at once they are personal in their conception and execution yet impersonal in their aims and affect on the listener. Phillip Golub’s Filters is a set of four piano pieces released on Greyfade, a label dedicated to process-based composition. Golub composes loops, simple repeating patterns which he then layers and alternates into subtly varying patterns. He has used these to create installations of indeterminate length, but for this LP he reduces his material to a couple of interlockling loops played on piano to create four modest but substantial pieces of roughly equal dimensions. Roughly equal characters, too: Golub has selected his materials (and his takes – the track titles indicate that one piece was discarded) to sound similar internally and externally. As each piece resembles the others, so does each moment of a piece resemble its others, allowing the listener either to ignore any difference or to listen closely in an attempt to distinguish each loop’s start and end. The overall pattern resembles a loosened knot, where each part may be examined but not pulled free from its structure. Golub’s language resembles Satie, in its recursiveness and use of familiar harmonies detourned through being stripped of direction and functional purpose. The pieces were recorded on “a beautifully maintained Steinway D” and its soft, buttery tone is well captured here.

A more spindly sound is offered for the two compositions by Kristofer Svensson on Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz’s stilla sv​ä​va. You may remember Svensson from Maya Bennardo playing his Duk med broderi och bordets kant for solo violin on a previous Kuyin release. You may remember Persson and Scholz from their various recordings of Cage and Feldman etc. (their double CD of Christian Wolff’s piano duets is an excellent introduction to that recondite composer). The keyboards heard here are older instruments: Persson plays a clavichord on the half-hour suite I Sommarluft before being joined by Scholz for a four-hands duet on a 19th century square piano in Kori Kamandungan. Both works require the instruments to be returned into a just-intonation system of Svensson’s devising. It all makes for a bracing combination, with the slowness characteristic of much just-intonation music at odds with the sharp attach and quick decay of the instruments. Composer and musicians work together here to make music of finely engraved lines and points in a slow, thin counterpoint. The material draws on themes from various cultures and periods of history, ranging from Sundanese tradition to Mamoru Fujieda’s study of floral electrostatics. Some notes on the square piano sound prepared, unless Svensson has really exploited the harmonic potential of the instrument’s stringing. Otherwise, the retuning does not draw attention to itself other than to give clarity to the fragile shapes and a faint resonance to highlight the delicate craftmanship deployed here. Both works are recorded in their first full hearing, with the mics hot enough to capture the room and extraneous sounds as well as all of the strings’ qualities.

The above pieces can be heard as being created out of a sense of compulsion and obligation to their art more than a goal of moving a listener in a given way; this goes double for Quentin Tolimieri’s three-hour set of piano solos Monochromes. A cycle of fifteen compositions, it begins gently enough with the slowly circling Monochrome 1, before really leaning into the title’s premise. Number 2 obsessively rags on arpeggiated clusters in the top register, then number 3 obsessively hammers a muted string until a emits a veil of harmonics. It’s a catalogue of forms shaped by techniques, in unison with material created as by-product of those techniques, overtones and beating frequencies, damped and muted strings. Some pieces are little more than gestural exercises, such as the exhausting 35-minute marathon of tremoloes that makes up the entirety of the central number 8. Number 12’s similarly taxing roll of alternating high clusters also suggests that both pianist and listener need to be prepared and in the right state of mind before launching into some of these pieces, so that the fruits of your respective labours can be best appreciated. The wacky thing is that the overall cycle’s structure is not nearly as rigorous as it intially appears, as a run of several highly reductive pieces is suddenly interrupted by a soft, beguiling work as number 13, one of several works where melody and changes are free to unfold. As a reflection of Tolimieri’s own musical practice as composer and performer, it makes you question how deeply you listen into any piece, regardless of its surface detail.