Thursday, November 4, 2010

Piano and classical drones

When I set up this blog nearly four years ago, I envisaged the Classical and the Drone as twin poles between which I would concentrate my humble observations. The intersection of these two worlds certainly exists, for example La Monte Young and Alvin Lucier, but the last time the two came together around here was about a year ago with Sunn O)))'s drone metal combined with classical instruments. I have recently discovered Peter Adriaansz, a younger composer from Holland who's also the artistic director of The Hague Percussion, firmly in the classical world, whose work in the past couple of years combines piano and drones in a way that I find inspirational for my own music.

I originally encountered Adriaansz through Xavier Pestova's repertoire list of music for piano and live electronics. His score for Waves 1-4, for piano, ebows, sine waves, and live delay, was posted on his site, a fascinating and thought provoking excursion which led me to my local guitar shop for my first ebow. Since that time, I reviewed Richard Lainhart's recent CD Cranes Fly West, which uses a grand piano and nine ebows (Adriaansz, in this score, only calls for three), which increased my interest level. And earlier this year, the Dutch Ensemble Klang released a CD of seven of Adriaansz's Waves, including one of the solo piano works and six further excursions into drone piano in combination with reeds, trombone, percussion, violin, and electric guitar. As far as I can tell, it's the first CD release of any of his music, hopefully a harbinger of future installments.

Adriaansz's works page contains thirteen Waves, divided into four sets, and two of the four sets are performed here in their entirety, each movement recorded in a single take. Waves 5-7 open the album and were written for the Ensemble Klang during a period where Adriaansz had done some work with microtonality and was now furthering his investigations into vibration and resonance. Wave 5 divides the ensemble into generating and responding instruments. The piano and ebowed guitar generate tones that are further sustained and modified by the reeds, brass, and percussion. Wave 6 devolves around a single pitch, adding microtonal variations of specific proportions on either side, generating elusive beating harmonies, especially at a fairly good volume. Wave 7 sets up a quiet ebowed drone before it's interrupted by monumentally deep bass notes on the piano, trombone and low reeds. The low fundamentals elicit lots of overtones, making this one a very rich sound world. Higher partials are added explicitly as the piece progresses, with the piano articulating slow octave arpeggios that provide a faint rhythmic anchor in the harmonic blaze.

The second complete set is Waves 11-13, originally written for Peter van Bergen's Loos Ensemble, and played here by two reeds, percussion, guitar, ebowed piano, and violin. Adriaansz has put up a sample score for Waves 11-13, so it's a little easier to see what's going on, and Adriaansz has also posted article with a fair amount of detail about the pieces. Waves 11 is all sustained sounds, dreamlike with surges but no attacks. Waves 12 is highly punctuated with dissonant piano chords and resonant gongs, whose overtones are carried by the sine waves and other sustaining instruments. And in Waves 13 the piano chords are spread out into individual notes stretched across three octaves, spawning subtle moving harmonies.

Between the two sets of Waves, the ensemble programmed a set of three miniatures written in a more conventional style, Nu descendant un escalier. They reminded me strongly of the classic Hat recordings of the Maarten Altena Octet, so I was little surprised to see in Adriaansz's work list that three of his pieces were in fact commissioned by and written for Altena's ensemble (sadly unrecorded as far as I can determine). The album closes with one of the first set, Waves 3 for amplified piano, sine waves and live delay.

Work in microtonality often leads to electronic solutions, and Adriaansz has developed an unusual hybrid of live electronics with the Klang Ensemble. The album has a guest credit of Juan Parra on live electronics on these three sets, and it sounds like it includes a long digital delay to prolong the already stretched tones. Several of the Waves include a part for fixed and moving sines, which further color the harmonies. In practice, the sines draw out an emphasis in the overtones of the acoustic instruments and contribute a sheen to the harmonic overtones. In addition, the acoustic instruments are amplified, which provides another opportunity to place them into an overall context.

As a glance at his scores will demonstrate, Adriaansz has discovered new ways to communicate his microtonal works through an open notation that focuses on the essential chromaticism that he seeks, while deferring specific timbres and entrances to the performers. One of its ancestors is Cage's time bracket notation, where an event is simply given a range of time in which it occurs. Adriaansz uses the metaphor 'live sculpting,' which suggests a mobile, shifting perspectives over a fairly sparse sonic field, but provided a freedom to the musicians to create the complete sound in its own time.

In addition to the usual sources, Waves is available through the Ensemble Klang's web shop where, powered by Bandcamp, all the tracks are available for streaming in their entirety. The sales blurb says that the CD comes with a booklet, which encouraged me to purchase the CD rather than the download. However, the download that came after the CD purchase had a PDF of the booklet in the zip file, but I don't know whether it's present on the download alone purchases. The booklet is all in English and includes an article about Adriaansz written by Bob Gilmore, an interview between Adriaansz and the Ensemble Klang's Artistic Director and fellow composer Pete Harden, and short bios of the composer and the ensemble. Adriaansz writes about the Wave series in an article in English, How I Became A Convert, on his use of microtonality.

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