Herbert Henck piano
Recorded August 1999, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
George Antheil (1900-1959) caused a stir in October of 1923 not unlike the one provoked by Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps after performing a selection of his sonatas. Only when Erik Satie, in attendance for the performance, voiced his unflinching support did Paris accept him as the self-anointed “Bad Boy of Music.” What incited the audience was the sheer ferocity with which Antheil played, so unsettling was it in its precision. In doing so, he flirted with the Uncanny Valley, taking the human dangerously close to the mechanical. And while his American debut was met with less fruitful derision, Antheil remained convinced that he was as important as ever. Whatever we may think of the man, his tireless spirit (he was known to practice for 20 hours at a stretch) lives on in the keen performances of pianist Herbert Henck, who makes a welcome return to ECM, pairing the French maverick’s sonic factories with the more intimate production lines of American composer and political outcast Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). The double meaning of the album’s title, Piano Music, gives us clearest insight into its program. Almost instinctively, both composers took to the player piano, treating it as though it were an organism in and of itself. Henck uses the phrase “piano music” as one might speak of “bird song.”
Of Nancorrow there is little to say, as he spent much of his life in hermetic obscurity (in Mexico, no less, after having been denied reentry into America from Spain, where he took up arms against the Franco regime and professed his allegiance to the communist party), quietly amassing a sizable oeuvre of laboriously perforated pianola rolls, which later astonished the musical world with their depth. Although the selections given here were written before Nancorrow began tinkering with the player piano in earnest, their virtuosity is clear in the autonomy of Henck’s elicitations. Such is the electricity that runs the Three 2-part Studies (1940/41), which “roll” off Henck’s fingers with absolute precision, and do the short Prelude and the Blues of 1935.
The Sonatina für Radio (1929), an infectiously jaunty piece with ragtime flair, is a capricious introduction to the music of Antheil, who makes up the rest of this modest 39-minute album. Among a fine selection of miniatures, some as short as thirteen seconds, are his adroit Second Sonata “The Airplane” (1922) and Mechanisms (1922/23). Where the former employs a host of rotary techniques and melodic turbines, all given upward lift by the aerodynamic contours of its fuselage-like core, the latter is a more enigmatic mosaic of unreachable clusters gilded in consonant frames. This is a piece that asks not which mechanisms are being described, but which are being deployed. One possible answer to that question can be found in A Machine (1932/33), a veritable build-up of static shocks that finds its demise in Sonatina (Death of the Machines) (1922). The (Little) Shimmy (1923) that ends the disc is precisely that, scooting the listener ever closer to an indefinable threshold.
This music was meant to be played by only the most skilled of human performers. Henck handles their notorious challenges with a practical ease nowhere to be found when originally composed, showing us in the process that the animate body is still the most creative machine of them all.