Vanessa Wagner returns with a thoughtfully compiled album bringing together a selection of modern piano music that might be described as ‘minimal’. Her concept is to show how new music can still explore the instrument afresh, using the barest of melodic or harmonic material as its stimulus but finding something substantial within.
The selection here includes works by 14 composers, many of them rare and unpublished.
What’s the music like?
This is a really inspired compilation, logically ordered and with a natural rise and fall. In the process of the anthology, Vanessa Wagner shows off a wide range of approaches to the piano, from flowing, watery pieces to more percussive interludes. The music might be predominantly slow but Wagner finds its pressure points and releases its emotional energy in full, showcasing some fine compositions in the process.
The rippling surfaces of Suzanne Ciani’s Rain, first in the collection, are a kind of homage to a Debussy Arabesque. Harold Budd’s La Casa Bruja has a slower, more reflective beauty, as does the Brian andRoger Eno collaboration Celeste. Contrast these with the gently twinkling ivories of Bryce Dessner’s Lullaby (Song for Octave), and the thicker brush strokes of David Lang’s Spartan Arcs.
The two Philip Glass selections range from a sombre, deeply felt Etude no.16 to a staccato Etude no.6 that sounds a bit more like a fly buzzing against the insides of a jam jar. Wagner really gets Glass’s phrasing, and the powerful refrain that the piece returns to is forcefully and brilliantly played. Even more dazzling is the following Etude no.3, ‘Running’, by Nico Muhly, its thrilling discourse brilliantly distilled.
Elsewhere Moondog’s flowing Prelude no.1 in A minor casts its eyes towards the past, while Julia Wolfe’s Earring finds striking sounds in the piano’s upper register. Ezio Bosso’s Before 6 complements the activity of the Glass and Muhly Etudes with almost complete stillness, the effect both meditative and moving.
The most striking of the compositions, however, is the album’s centrepiece. Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Grey, based on a Chopin Mazurka, starts with clumps of chords and a solemn, slow bass. From these beginnings the piece progresses to contemplation, lost in thought in its centre before a searing expression of feeling, the piano cutting through in Wagner’s intense interpretation. A sense of pathos is evident at the end, a satisfying resolution.
Does it all work?
Yes, on many levels. What this compilation also does is somehow highlight the importance of the music of Erik Satie, without including any. Much of the music here is both minimal, interesting and emotional, mirroring the older composer’s achievements in his Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies. Wagner plays this music with great feeling and panache.
Is it recommended?
Without hesitation. This is a fine creative project, brilliantly scoped and realised. If you want to discover new piano music, here is a whole album’s worth on which to reflect and enjoy.
Take some time out this weekend – three minutes and forty-one seconds to be precise – and enjoy this video, a taster of pianist Vanessa Wagner‘s new album Study of the Invisible.
Released today on InFiné Music, the album is a carefully constructed suite of modern piano music, taking in minimal approaches but casting its net wider to hear from composers such as Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe and Harold Budd.
Arcana will carry a full review of the album, and an interview with Vanessa where we discuss the recording of the album and her approach to the piano. For now, though, enjoy the peace and stillness of this video!
You can read more about Vanessa Wagner at her website – and to hear more from the album, listen on by using the Bandcamp link below:
It is deepest summer, and Arcana is on an online call with Arandel, live from Burgundy. Taking the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as his inspiration, the anonymous French composer and producer has been discovering a wide range of material that has so far yielded two InBach albums. The second enjoys new perspectives offered in live performance of the first, and it presented the perfect opportunity for Arcana to step in and discuss.
We begin with introductions – especially the one Arandel had with the music of Bach. “I’m not sure, but it was some of the music my father used to play on this turntable when I was a kid. I remember being very impressed by the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, it used to be the soundtrack of the opening credits for a children’s cartoon called Il était une fois… l’homme (Once upon a time…man) My father used to play all kinds of music and Bach was one of those.”
His curiosity grew. “One of the things that attracted me to the music was that I was trying to figure out why it was so present in everyone’s mind. In today’s modern music there are glimpses and traces of Bach, more than any other classical or Baroque composers.” Inspiration took hold, but what was it about Bach that made Arandel realise he could use it for his own music? “It all started with a preposition from someone I worked with at the Paris Philharmonie. He asked me to think about something for a weekend dedicated to Bach, a Bach marathon. I had carte blanche for the end of the evening, and I had 45 minutes to do whatever I wanted on Bach. I had remixed Mozart once, but while I am very impressed with and have a lot of respect for classical music, I’m not a classically trained musician at all. I can’t read or write the music, so I look at classical music with very much respect but also a bit of distance.”
In spite of the lack of experience, Bach’s music took hold. “It was never a career plan of mine to venture into electronic classical music, but I thought it was a great opportunity to work on something different. I felt like there was enough material, diversity in Bach’s music for me to find something I could work on. I think it would have been very different with Mozart or Beethoven, but with Bach there is something that makes it possible to make it your own. From this position, I dived into Bach’s music, and I asked friends and colleagues to give me recommendations on Bach. That’s how I found a lot of material for the first InBach. Every scene has its own little story – I couldn’t answer how I made those tracks in general. One is with a particular instrument, another because of cooperation with another musician. It reflects the different tones of the album.”
One of the musicians collaborating with Arandel is cellist Gaspar Claus, who appears on three tracks on InBach Vol.2, including Fabula (above). “That was a long time ago,” he recalls, “Three years, I guess. It was great. We have known each other for over 10 years now but hadn’t really worked together other than a small jam one night in a small French town. I don’t normally do this kind of improvisation because I don’t feel comfortable, but with Gaspar it was easy to think about something, because he brings so much and frees you to bring something different. I remembered this night when I asked him to if he wanted to join the InBach project. At first it was with his trio, but they were not all available, so it became just Gaspar. At first, I wanted him to play the viola da gamba, and I asked him if he was up for playing an instrument he hadn’t played before. Of course he was, but we had little difficulties with the museum we approached, because of very strict rules about the consideration of the instruments. The rule was that you couldn’t have someone playing the viola da gamba if they were not a professional. In the end he played a historical cello, and they agreed to let us use a facsimile of an old viola da gamba. It was great, very natural.”
Arandel also worked with Myra Davies, who provides vocals on Doxa Notes, the first track on the album. “I was impressed by her in a way that I was almost scared, as I have a lot of admiration for her work. Talking to her was almost challenging, in some ways, because she’s so brilliant and clever! I wasn’t sure I could keep up with her but the level of conversations we had was really interesting, about metaphysics and the meaning of live.”
Are these the sort of discussions Bach’s music could fuel? “Maybe it’s because we had the same feeling about Bach’s music being timeless. The magic of his music could be inherited, and from century to century it will survive us all. That’s probably where the metaphysics came from. When we are not here anymore, where will Bach’s music be?”
Both InBach albums are likely to surprise with the scope of their approach and invention. Was it Bach himself who brought out this creativity? “Yes, of course! To me, it’s not really my music. It’s my take on Bach’s music, and I think it’s because of the way I approached it, which was like what I would do for a remix. It is about finding the find bits of the original piece and maintain something of the original, it has to float somewhere. You have to bring your own creativity or touch. It was a bit challenging at first, because Bach’s music is regarded by some as perfect and sacred. Some of the musicians I approached for the collaborations turned it down because they said, “No, Bach’s music is perfect.” They told me it would be very cocky of me to bring something to Bach’s music. I can understand their point, but I don’t agree! I can try to bring my light touch to it and still think that Bach’s music is great on its own. I’m not trying to make it better! I always say it was like being iconoclastic, and I wanted to do it with respect to what I hear in Bach’s music.”
With such a wide and varied range of responses to Bach in pop music, is it fair to say the best ones are those treating him with great respect, such as Wendy Carlos in Switched On Bach? “Yeah. It’s not easy music to listen to, with all the bleeps – I think it’s very inspiring, but for my own taste it is a little too close to the original, and at the same time a little too ‘bleepy’. After two or three tracks, it gets hard to listen to the whole album.”
Was it an emotional experience writing the two Bach albums? “For the second one, of course – there was the whole thing about the lockdowns, and my brother passed away while I was working on it. I’m not sure how it affects the way I produce though.” I asked as one of the most telling tracks is in fact the Capriccio, subtitled by Bach as ‘on the departure of a beloved brother’, “Agnès Gayraud, a French writer and philosopher, wrote a great book called Dialectic of Pop. She wrote the press release for the album, and we had a long talk about how she felt about the album. It was really the first time I could talk to someone about this subject because I was still very immersed in it. We talked a lot about God, and dramatic apparitions. The music of Bach to her was starting to get more haunting. She really had a point, and it resonated with me very deeply. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older – aren’t we all?! – but I feel like I’m becoming more haunted. People who are not here any more are at a place where you can go and look for them, you know where they are.” Is it true that Bach’s music can act as a link between the two worlds? “Yes, because it says something about eternity, and how things keep on enlightening us. Death is not an end in itself.”
Bach’s music continues to inspire, whether in reinterpretations like Arandel’s but also in new recordings from classical musicians. “There is something about the composer that still resonates, but I like that after two volumes I still don’t know why! I’ll probably never know, and that’s fine. I will keep on looking, but I don’t think I will make a third album. I will keep looking at Bach’s music though.”
In spite of the lack of classical training, Arandel agrees this can be a help rather than hindrance when talking of an original approach. “I don’t see things from this perspective, but how can it have any influence on the classical world?” I suggest that it can inspire different approaches to concerts and flexible audiences, who could be pleasantly surprised by electronic musicians and their approach to Bach. “I wouldn’t really know because I don’t have much feedback from the classical world. It was actually those reviews that were interesting. I like to read reviews, and when I read them, I learn about what I did. That’s why I liked your critique, I remember reading it and thinking it was very interesting.”
With no more Bach planned for now, is there other new music on the go? “At the moment I should be working on remixes, but it’s the middle of the holidays and my mind’s not exactly in music right now. I’m in the garden, working with tomatoes and potatoes. It’s different but it’s what I need! The next album is almost ready. It was actually ready before InBach, but this project happened in a very short period of time and the label decided that instead of moving on with my next album I should put it to one side and focus on InBach. I have made some tweaks and adjustments now I have worked on InBach. I feel it might change a few things about how I listen to my own music!”
For now, the man behind Arandel will remain anonymous. “When working on the promotion of InBach we discussed a lot with the label as to how I would have to adjust my communication because it was a different project, but I felt I said everything I could say while still being anonymous and not showing my face and not doing video interviews. For a while I felt that everything that could be said had been said, and I had to do something differently. I was reluctant and still am, to use my real name!”
Interview by Ben Hogwood
Both InBach and InBach Vol.2 are out now on InFiné, with a link to the Bandcamp site for the current album below:
Aārp is an intriguing figure. Having started out as a viola player in an orchestra, the producer – whose real name is elusive – found his head turned by electronic music, specifically the likes of Squarepusher, Amon Tobin and Oneohtrix Point Never. His love of classical and exploratory electronic music spills over into a full length record for InFiné, his first album Propaganda.
With a title like that it is no surprise to report a political slant to Aārp’s thinking. It is a response to the tragedy of a young festival-goer in Nantes who drowned following a police altercation – and specifically a response to how that tragedy was reported and spun by the press. Aārp was inspired to create a series of tracks, each given the title of an important quote from world news that was treated in a similar way.
What’s the music like?
While it sounds like he is working with a heavy subtext, it is great to report that Aārp does not get too weighed down by his subject matter. In fact the opposite is true, as Propaganda has moments of light and shade, seriousness and humour. It is a restless piece of work, full of riffs that never quite stay still but go really well with his beat making. Nothing is off the table here and there is a lot of excellent work by instinct.
Ca fuit de partout sets the tone with a descending motif that has a quirky edge, which Condamnez-vous les violences? runs with, the riffs becoming more oblique. The Axis of Evil is a thrilling ride, glitchy beats preceded by a blast of rich organ chords. Meanwhile on The Herbicide That Gets To The Root Of The Problem, riffs flit across the stereo picture like birds not quite settling, the music hyperactive and uneasy.
Not all Aārp’s writing is as packed with events as the opening trio. His descending motif gets a different perspective in the more introspective Less than 1% of Patients Become Addicted, while darkness descends with the low threat of Nada es gratis en esta vida, a short but heavily loaded track.
Some of his soundscapes are really impressive – try the breadth of vision from I Prefer a Liberal Dictator to Democratic Government Lacking Liberalism, or Les malheureux sont les puissances de la Terre, which moves from what sounds like electronic steelpans to pinball-style beats and shimmering chords.
Does it all work?
As an album, yes – because Aārp has a distinctive style that constantly asks questions of its surroundings. The duration might be relatively short but a lot happens in 35 minutes! The bursts of hyperactivity might also be a bit too much for some, with a short attention span meaning some of the ideas don’t get developed as fully as they might, but the album follows a compelling path which rewards repeated listening.
Is it recommended?
Yes. Aarp has a fresh approach to electronic music that works rather well, and although the topics covered by Propaganda are pretty weighty, the responses to them offer blasts of fresh air.
The music of the so-called ‘minimalists’, led by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, has always provided a strong link between classical and electronic music, and has naturally inspired a number of artists positioned at that junction.
Reinterpretations of Glass and Reich have varied considerably though, from those who like to perform the music straight with no added frills to those who have added drum tracks and remixed them beyond almost all recognition. In that sense the music has been an inspiration, but it has on occasion proved difficult to get the balance right.
Pianist Bruce Brubaker and scientist / electronic music producer Max Cooper have teamed up for their own reinterpretation of the music of Philip Glass, approaching it with a view to adding subtle enhancements rather than radically changing its essence. Cooper has developed his own system for musical expression with Alexander Randon, taking live feeds from the piano to drive his own systems.
What’s the music like?
Brubaker performs well-known Glass piano pieces such as Mad Rush, Two Pages and Metamorphosis 2 with great sensitivity, to which Cooper adds the expressive studio touches and atmospherics. That may seem like straightforward solution, but both performers have to be careful to avoid over-egging what Glass has already done.
The pair link the originals with improvised music of their own. This is through a series of five preludes where Brubaker channels the spirit of Glass but brings in external influences from the likes of Liszt and Bach to galvanizing effect.
There are so many notes in the busy keyboard pieces such as Mad Rush that to do too much would not work – but here the judgement of both performers is right on the money. The piano parts are essentially the same, but Cooper cleverly highlights elements of the busy lines with his own spotlit textures, putting shards of white noise on the top of the likes of Mad Rush and opening out the sound with long bass notes, taking us from intimate beginnings to cinematic, big-venue textures. He does this without compromising the solitary world of a piece like Metamorphosis 2, and each one makes an unexpectedly weighty emotional impact.
While the reinterpretations of pieces like Tirol Concerto are excellent, Brubaker and Cooper’s interpretation of Two Pages is outstanding. It is ideally paced, the tracer lights of the keyboard operating over great waves of synthesizer pads, the chords shifting simply but with a devastatingly effective emotional payoff. So far each listen to this particular track has left a tear in the eye!
Does it all work?
Yes. It is immediately clear that Brubaker and Cooper hold the music of Glass in the utmost respect, but also that they know how to bring it forward and point it towards a slightly more club-orientated audience. There are no beats at any point, but the electronic sounds and textures bring them much closer – and Glass’s own rhythmic impetus is enough in any case. Each track is carefully woven and lovingly produced, and sounds great on headphones.
Is it recommended?
Very much so. Glass and Reich have had some excellent remix treatment in the last 25 years or so, but Bruce Brubaker and Max Cooper have really raised the game with this album, which is both wholly complimentary to Glass but offers something new in its own right. It is a really fine achievement.