CD Review: Dan Trueman: Nostalgic Synchronic, Etudes for Prepared Digital Piano—Adam Sliwinski (New Amsterdam 70, 2015, 44 minutes)

Dan Trueman, who works as a professor of composition at Princeton University, lightly wears the trappings of his prestigious appointment. He describes himself—almost everywhere I can find—as a “composer, fiddler, and electronic musician.” Digging a little deeper, I found his Ph.D. dissertation (“Reinventing the Violin,” 1999, also from Princeton): a refreshing, erudite but unpretentious document and exactly the kind of thing I’d expect a composer to write. His promotional biography includes, almost as an afterthought, the notice that he’s been awarded prizes from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. In short, my kind of guy. (You can read a nice interview with him, written by my friend Tom Moore, here.)

In Nostalgic Synchronic, Trueman offers an ingratiating set of eight etudes for the bitKlavier, software that creates what he calls “a prepared digital piano” when harnessed by MIDI devices. Some explanation is in order. Both Henry Cowell and John Cage famously experimented with the traditional grand, altering its sound with various objects—Cage’s extensive work formalized the idea as the prepared piano, and his own joy in discovering new kinds of sounds helped him to create with it an unexpectedly vast array of different timbres for his music from the late 1930s through the mid ’50s. The bitKlavier, by contrast, alters a digital piano sample through algorithms that modify the piano sound in several ingenious ways: (1) the Nostalgic virtual preparation creates for certain notes a backward piano sound (one that begins in near silence and becomes louder)—a keyboardist’s touch can influence both the timbre and the tuning; (2) Synchronic preparations create an unpredictable repetition of the note or chord that may or may not match the rhythms of the notated music; (3) Tuning preparations allow for any imaginable temperament and include the familiar equal temperament as well as just intonation and an invented partial temperament inspired by the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle that Trueman plays. Certain notes can themselves act as controllers. (As Adam Sliwinski explained to me today, a low A in the fourth etude “toggles between two different rhythmic treatments.”) The preparations can be mobile (for instance, does the Nostalgic preparation can modify any notes desired). Touch can vary certain aspects ofthe preparations, like the reverse effect, but not others. Nevertheless, the software strikes me as very adaptable, and I’ll take some time later to explore it fully.

As a keyboard player myself, and as a writer engaged in writing a short cultural history of the piano, I’m thrilled to discover these compositions and eager to write more about them, in particular for what it tells us about the idea of the piano today. Stylistically, they traverse a wide cross-section but are often driven by a kind of post-minimalist preoccupation with pattern as well as straightforward melody with somewhat familiar-sounding harmonies. Naturally, these two fundamental aspects are often much obscured by the virtual preparations, but never so much that the whole evokes a complex terrain with few if any traditional markers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.) The expressive spectrum is wide, too, ranging from the playful No. 6, “Points among Lines (with Occasional Tantrum)” to the almost naively simple No. 3, “Song.”

I’m drawn to the pieces between these two extremes because I personally find they repay repeated hearings. No. 1, “Prelude,” unfurls from a single note through a series of harmonies and patterns made more engaging by the tuning, which seems to be just intonation. No. 2, “Undertow,” is one of the slowest, most meditative works in the set, and the various reverse sounds combine with the tuning to evoke a slowly undulating environment. I find No. 4, “Marbles,” the most attractive of all. A kind of updated version of the many Elliott Carter passages marked scorrevole, its repetitive patterns are delightfully mucked up by the Synchronic preparations and the tuning gives to the whole a sparkling, crystalline quality further heightened by frequent passages in the upper registers.

As for some others, Trueman explains that No. 5, “Wallumrød,” owes something to two sonorities from a record by the Norwegian “jazz” (his scare quotes) composer and pianist Christian Wallumrød. This one is interesting because the form is more elusive, meandering back and forth among various sonorities and textures. The eighth and final etude (“It is Enough!”) treats the evergreen Bach chorale harmonization—famously used in Berg’s Violin Concerto. The spare textures and focus on just a few recurring and relatively consonant intervals bring the set to a powerful and poignant close.

As for the performance, I previously knew Adam Sliwinski only as a percussionist with the marvelous Sō Percussion. I’m very happy to report that his keyboard chops are equally nuanced and expressive. Electronic keyboards are notoriously difficult to play with the kind of touch sensitivity one can have with an acoustic piano (a major exception is the Yamaha hybrid pianos, but these use a traditional action married with the digital samples in any case), but Sliwinski succeeds brilliantly: in my experience, only Michael Riesman (of Philip Glass’s ensemble) has been on recordings as precise but also as musical with electronic instruments.

You can learn more about the work and even obtain the software here.

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