On Record – Vanessa Wagner: Study Of The Invisible (InFiné Music)

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written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

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The selection here includes works by 14 composers, many of them rare and unpublished.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 and Roger 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.

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Switched On – Vanessa Wagner: Study of the Invisible

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:

On Record – Vanessa Wagner: Inland (InFiné)

What’s the story?

After her Statea collaboration with Murcof, Vanessa Wagner turns to solo piano for this substantial anthology of pieces with a minimalist slant. It is a broad selection, from the established coffee shop soundtracks of Michael Nyman through to longer pieces by Gavin Bryars, Hans Otte and Pēteris Vasks. Wagner brings together different approaches from either side of the Atlantic, and in doing brings up a half century of albums for French label InFiné.

What’s the music like?

The key to the success of this album is in the planning. By bringing together different approaches Wagner keeps the interest level high, from short but poignant pieces such as Moondog’s Für Fritz (Chaconne in A minor) to Otte’s Das Buch der Klänge, Pt. 2, which has a tonal base but ventures quite a long way harmonically, as its ripples get more pronounced. The pronounced statement at the end serves of a reminder of the influence of Janáček on this area of music.

There are two pieces from Bryce Dessner, with Ornament 3 especially animated, bringing suggestions of Sibelius. The Etude no.9 of Philip Glass drives forward obstinately, its kinetic energy bracing if slightly clinical, but this is complemented by the short but descriptive Railroad (Travel Song) from Meredith Monk. If Michael Nyman’s The Heart Asks Pleasure First inevitably conjures up visions of an Italian coffee chain in the early morning, it is still given extra freshness here, Wagner giving Nyman’s arpeggios a flowing sweep and a really nice sense of space.

Gavin BryarsRamble On Corona hits some deeper set emotions as it works out, reminiscent of the Spanish composer Mompou in its pairing of intimacy and space, while Nico Muhly’s Hudson Cycle has a lovely, lilting syncopation that rocks gently.

The best is saved for last, however, the Latvian composer Vasks really casting a spell with the stillness and poise of Baltâ ainava (White scenery), a cold excerpt from his substantial piano suite The Seasons, serving as one of those ‘last pieces before sleep’.

Does it all work?

Yes, very well indeed. Wagner has a very sympathetic ear for music that has plenty to offer, getting to the nub of its meditative qualities but bringing out its positive energy too. Each composer holds their own, the result an authoritative and accurate look at piano music in the 21st century, showing how it is possible to write with both simplicity and substance.

Is it recommended?

Yes, in all sorts of different musical directions! Recommended to fans approaching from the more ordered classical direction of Reich and Glass, but also to those coming in from the more electronic approaches of Nils Frahm and Murcof.

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Vanessa Wagner – Expanding the piano

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We’ve already spoken to Murcof about his collaboration with pianist Vanessa Wagner – and now it’s time for her side of the story. She describes how she found classical music and how her meeting with Murcof opened up all sorts of electronic possibilities. Here they are on their work together:

Vanessa, can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My parents were not listening to a lot of classical music. They were rather into jazz and the French chanson. Then one day, the piano of my great-grandmother came home, and I started to play. My childhood idol was a wonderful Romanian pianist named Clara Haskil, far away from the glamour girls are usually dreaming of! She is still an artist that I love.

Who are the composers you have grown to particularly admire?

I grew up with the music of Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Brahms and Janáček, who are still my favourites, Schubert especially. His melancholy, and the time stretched in his music touches me enormously. Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are pieces that never leave me.

What was it that appealed to you about working with Murcof?

I was the one to initiate this encounter. I have listened to his music for a long time. I met him at the workshop of the Infiné label, and we made an improvised test. Then I had the chance to have a residency in a room of the Arsenal of Metz. They gave me carte blanche to develop new projects, I invited Murcof to play with me, and Statea was born.

How did you make sure you got a good balance between the piano and the electronics?

I always asked Murcof to pay attention to the acoustic piano sound. The piano is the starting point of this project, and it was important that the electronic effects do not swallow its sound even if it is sometimes distorted. Similarly, it also seemed very important to stay true to the scores of composers that I interpret. That’s why the album is called Statea, which means balance in ancient Italian.

Had you listened to much electronic music prior to working with him?

I have listened to electronic music for 20 years. At that time, in my classical circles, it was frowned upon. I had never heard of the big techno anthems, and I went right back to ambient/IDM artists – the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Model 500, Maurizio, UR etc.

Do you think there are other albums or pieces of music that bring classical and electronic together well?

Max Richter´s Four Seasons of Vivaldi works pretty well. Brian Eno also has a beautiful piece called Fullness of Wind, taking its lead from Pachelbel.

Do you think classical and electronic music have a lot more in common than one would expect?

I think meetings of the two styles are quite possible, if one avoids falling into the mainstream that we call crossover classical. The approach focuses on the sound result. We must respect the original script. Adding a beat onto a piece of Mozart or Beethoven cannot be a creative artistic process in itself.

Moreover, music known as ‘contemporary classical’ and art music has a lot in common with experimental electronic. Bridges are possible and desirable between these universes.

Has working with electronic music helped your appreciation of classical?

This does not specifically help me in my classical interpretation. What I greatly appreciate is to exercise out of my classical world, to transform the sound of my instrument, and to experience concerts differently, giving a new fresh perspective to my daily occupation of being a pianist.

For me, it is an interior window that opened itself, and I strongly hope that this is new cornerstone in the musical world which will contribute to the opening of minds and ears!

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers that you’ve been listening to recently, what would it be and why?

I would recommend listening to the Goldberg Variations of Bach (Glenn Gould, for example), the Death and the Maiden String Quartet by Schubert, or Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, especially the second movement Silentium.

Statea, by Murcof and Vanessa Wagner, is out now on Infiné. The pair will appear at the Barbican on Monday 31 October as part of a bill including pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican website. Vanessa will also be giving her thoughts on classical music to Arcana shortly!

Murcof – bringing classical and electronic music together

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Murcof is Mexican musician Fernando Corona, an artist who integrates classical and electronic music. Working with pianist Vanessa Wagner he has recently released the Statea album, an ambient piece of work that takes its source material from John Cage and Erik Satie amongst others. Here he talks to Arcana about his love of classical music, and how the two forms harmonise together. But first, here’s an introduction to their album together:

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

It was a long time ago when I was a kid, and it comes from the side of my father in the family. It was an album of Wendy Carlos playing Bach in the late 1970s, I think. He also did some electronic / analogue synthesizer interpretations of Bach’s music, and so that was the first proper marriage of electronic and classical that I heard. I developed an interest in both, and I became much more familiar with 20th century music from composers like Stravinsky, the Schoenberg school, Xenakis, Ligeti and all the people up to Arvo Pärt, Silvestrov and the minimalists. Classical music has been with me all this time from my childhood and this album is a logical place to go because of that.

How did you get to work with Vanessa?

I met her before we started making music, through her husband Alexandre Cazac. He is director of the Infiné label, and I have been friends with him for many years. We’ve worked together, and in that time he has been very supportive. It wasn’t until a week-long workshop that we did a small arrangement together however. We were playing the same night, and Vanessa was the first one on, then me, so we interlinked the two. Statea has been a work in progress since 2010.

In that time we only did 20 or 30 concerts together, so it is still a fresh collaboration, and now with the album done we are adapting it for the stage. Many things have changed, and we have started from scratch again with some of the pieces, but we have always respected what we are doing.

For our Satie work (Gnossienne no.3) the piano sounds have a lot of analogue processes, where we have brought the piano audio signal into the modular system, before messing around with ring modulation, filtering, and experimenting with the possibilities. The piece is not too long, but I recorded around 45 minutes of messing around and cut the most important and interesting bits to fit the final track.

The album is called ‘Statea’. Is that because you achieve the ideal balance between classical and electronic music?

It’s because to make an album is sometimes the hardest part. It was open enough, it wasn’t going to encapsulate us in a direct way, a literal way, but we talked about a good balance between acoustic and digital. You can listen to the piece as one whole, not just the acoustic and not just the digital but something that works together. That is one of the things I am looking for, not getting lost in the sounds and what I have to say. That’s the reason for the name. We were initially going to use the Latin but Alexandre suggested the old Italian way.

Sometimes when classical and electronic music meet the results are a bit cheesy, but there is a very deep emotion to what you do.

That’s good to know, it’s a process and a matter of deciding what works and what doesn’t. It’s telling a story, and each sound needs a reason for existing. Vanessa and I were working together for a common goal. Most of these compositions are well known, and people have an idea about them, but even if it’s an abstract message it’s still there. You can enhance it or steer it off somewhere else.

With Satie, yeah, we wanted to see him a new light, especially as it’s one of the pieces that is most famous. It was tricky to work with it because of what you just said. We wanted to try and prepare a fresh view of the piece, to justify Vanessa and I working on it to contribute something new.

Is your approach in some way similar to that of Satie, a kind of ‘less is more’ viewpoint?

In a way, though I do find it quite a challenge to say when a track is done. I take that step very seriously, and I don’t like to overdo or underdo things. When a piece is finished it is when I have explored so many possibilities! Then I choose the best one, polish it and finish it.

Do you intend to continue working with classical music in this way?

Yeah. There are many things that can be done with classical music, and there are many approaches I would like to try. I would say ‘watch this space’, with compositions old and new. The acoustic instruments are so rich, and it is wonderful to work with them electronically and to open a can of worms with some of the weird harmonics that are peculiar to those instruments.

It has been a really strong emotional passage for me since our early ages, it is a big part of me on a personal level, and it is a natural situation for me to work with it.

You have a very fine ear for orchestration. Have you ever written for a full orchestra?

Yes. I did a small interaction with Jean-Paul Dessy, from Belgium, who is a composer and a director. Musiques Nouvelles is the name of his ensemble, and they adapted a piece of mine for orchestra. I have been sitting with this idea for a long time, and I would love to sit down with a composer / director who is open to the idea. It would be a bit stressful for sure but would be a lot of fun as well.

What does classical music mean to you?

For me personally each kind of music is a whole avenue of expression – classical, jazz and electronic with its many subgenres. Classical is long standing for so many centuries, and for me it is about always keeping with acoustic instruments – the more conservative music.

Classical music is a combination of centuries of studying, developing, trial and error of previous work. It is an emotional world but also a very strict one. The core essence is the compositions, but you need trained interpreters to play it. Because of that it can be stressful and competitive, but I think it is worthwhile to have highly trained interpreters so that we can enjoy the music of the past, from the Baroque to the 20th century twelve-tone music of Schoenberg and his school.

It is always this though – highly emotional and direct. In my case I formed an instant connection with it and because of that I have always found it very emotional.

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers that you’ve been listening to recently, what would it be and why?

I always go to one of my favourite composers of late, Valentin Silvestrov, a composer from the Ukraine. His latest work is amazing and I often go back to his Requiem, written for his wife. One small section of it is also part of a series of songs for piano and voice, but he also did a version for choir and orchestra. It is not a new piece but it is the one that comes to mind right now.

Statea, by Murcof and Vanessa Wagner, is out now on Infiné. The pair will appear at the Barbican on Monday 31 October as part of a bill including pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican website. Vanessa will also be giving her thoughts on classical music to Arcana shortly!