Masabumi Kikuchi: Hanamichi

Hanamichi is the final recording of Masabumi Kikuchi (1939-2015), a pianist whose fingers left indelible prints on many a keyboard. Produced by Sun Chung, a former ECM producer and now head of Red Hook Records (of which this is the debut release), the album drops like a stone into the ponds of our hearts. The resulting ripples take form as six tracks, yet it is in the unquantifiable rings of space between them that Kikuchi plants his notes as seeds for a crop that has outlived him. What distinguishes Kikuchi’s agricultural process is his refusal to prune away a single sunburnt leaf or dying plant. He takes care to describe those apparent imperfections as beauties in their own right because they are real, honest, and unmanufactured.

The not-quite-standard “Ramona” and the more-than-standard “Summertime” brim with such regard. The introductions to both breathe with a lived sense of geometry. Kikuchi tends to every stem like an ikebana master who works with his eyes closed. Just as the visual impact ceases to matter for one so accustomed to flowers, the sonic impact recedes for Kikuchi, who turns every contact of flesh and ivory into an emotional prelude beyond the confines of melody. His willingness and ability to capitulate to these moments come out of an understanding that intimacy has little to do with isolation but is just another name for connectivity. In the spirit of Paul Motian, the drummer with whom he played for more than two decades, the technical abilities required to evoke so much with so little are obscured. It is their shadows we encounter, if not also a hint of the light that casts them. He is the bird who flies for no other reason than to glorify the wind.

Unlike jazz players who unpack a thematic statement to expose hidden messages in even the most familiar tunes, Kikuchi reverse engineers them to unfamiliar origins. Two cases in point are his starkly different versions of “My Favorite Things.” Where the first molds nostalgia into a knotted internal dialogue of ringing chords, the second is the dream to its waking, performed in fearless slow motion. From these contemplations comes an “Improvisation,” which Kikuchi smooths into an altar for relatively percussive offerings.

“Little Abi,” a ballad he wrote for his daughter that was a cornerstone of his repertoire, concludes with a tear-inducing farewell. The pacing here is so cinematic that the listener cannot slide so much as a piece of paper between one movement and the next. How he accomplishes this while still allowing for so much breadth is unfathomable. A contradiction in words, to be sure, but an organic comfort in his sound.

To the details of said sound, Chung’s ears are lovingly matched, and Rick Kwan’s engineering seems to elucidate two inner songs for every outward one rendered. As in Kikuchi’s use of the sustain pedal, the recording team allows notes to inhale deeply before they exhale their songs into the ether. Thus, the studio functions as an extracorporeal lung—and perhaps by no metaphorical coincidence, given that the pianist had survived cancer of that very organ.

The term hanamichi (花道), literally “flower path,” is a Japanese idiom of kabuki theatrical origins that signifies an honorable end to one’s career. Listening to the session it titles, however, one could be forgiven for thinking of this as a beginning, given that final recordings are often new listeners’ entry point into the intangible wonders of great artists. Hence, the vintage Steinway on which he plays. While the family name is synonymous with world-class instruments, its literal meaning of “stone path” reveals another secret. The way of stone is an immovable trajectory from birth to death, raw and astonishing in its lack of repetition. All of which reminds us that every recording is a ghost of its creator, of whose soul we are but temporary hosts.

Nik Bärtsch: Entendre (ECM 2703)

Nik Bärtsch
Entendre

Nik Bärtsch piano
Recorded September 2020, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 19, 2021

The word entendre means “to direct one’s attention.” It’s root, entente, is the Old French from which we get the English “intent.” It’s akin to the modular concept that links the interpretive experiences of composer and pianist Nik Bärtsch—as indeed, each piece is a frame without a window. The nature of any light shining through that window is at the behest of the given moment, which arranges its particles simultaneously through passive and agentic being. Bärtsch serves the music rather than forcing it to bow at his feet. Its ritualistic qualities, therefore, have nothing to do with conjuring energies out of nowhere and everything to do with illuminating energies already around and within us so that we might begin to understand the generative qualities of the body’s interactions with the physical world.

While some of these modules will be known to longtime listeners, one will surely hear them anew when stripped of their brethren, flowing from ocean into river rather than the other way around. It would be challenging, however, to separate these self-directed readings from the bleed-through of their collective predecessors. One will hear the influences of not only his own projects, especially the well-documented Ronin, but also his relationships with producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Stefano Amerio, whose fingers leave their prints in the very air like Bärtsch’s on the keys.

“Modul 58” is a bird in our aural binoculars. It flits from one branch to another to engage the muscular scores with which it has been encoded, bone by bone and feather by feather. Passages of wonder give rise to fallen dances, a clan of hunters stripped of everything they own as a test of their inward focus. In place of swords, they wield a self-awareness that only the martial body can attain: efficient, visceral, and clean. As all of this blends into Modul 12 (an organic transition suggested by nothing more than the Lugano studio in which it was recorded), the touch of flesh, string, felt, and wood coheres into an ideographic language all its own.

The more forthright attack of “Modul 55,” as subtle as it is direct, eschews the violation of injury. Bärtsch shunts his bodily organs onto tracks of far less absorbent purpose so that flesh does not risk the temptation of polishing itself as a one-way mirror. Every time he strums the piano’s strings, the instrument’s very heart shimmers with a delight that can only be described as celestial. Thus, the moods and textures of Entendre are never stable. Realizing this is key to aligning oneself with the granular synthesis that abounds in this sequence. In “Modul 26,” an open sustain leads us into the temptation of a reverie, only to quickly fold itself in sentient origami. Each crease is so slight that the illusion of roundness reveals itself until the minimal becomes maximal. This highlight of the Bärtsch catalog shines with all the power of a supermoon, minus the fanfare. Cut off from all possibility of exaggeration, we stand before it in silent regard. This is enough.

“Modul 13” reveals only slivers of its various profiles, each more beguiling than the last but always within the reach of memory. Perhaps, this where all of this music is meant to live—that is, in a realm content with the idea of space but not its full realization. The seeking of harmonics on the dampened string of “Modul 5” unravels the biography of a half-tone. Loosely guided by variations on a heartfelt theme, it blurs its own skin until it is indistinguishable from the wind that caresses its follicles. Higher note clusters give way to moonlit floors across which only empty armor stands cast their shadows.

In the absence of geographical names, “Déjà-vu, Vienna” brings about the deepest blush of familiarity. Gone as quickly as it arrives, turning as a fallen leaf in search of its resting place, its veins flash a map for future travelers to follow when all is lost and prophecies fall dead, unfulfilled except as fertilizer for that one tree upon which the following verse will be carved:

to those who walk with eyes open
be not afraid to see with your ears
to those who walk with eyes closed
be not afraid to listen with your heart

Keith Jarrett: A Biography

The late Ian Carr’s Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music long stood as the most complete portrait of its subject, who turns 76 this month. Being a product of 1991, however, the book begged a companion this side of the second millennium. In 2015, German music editor and biographer Wolfgang Sandner answered that call. Five years later, Jarrett’s youngest brother Chris, who lives and teaches in Germany, offered this superbly rendered, expanded and updated translation into English. The result, Keith Jarrett: A Biography, retreads some of the pianist’s formative milestones while stringing through them artful observations, interpretations and connections. 

We find ourselves transported back to Jarrett’s upbringing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Sandner credits Jarrett’s mother for not putting her son on the pedestal that has separated so many young prodigies from the possibility of a normal childhood. This may be one reason why his genius was able to flourish so organically—untainted by the bane of expectation, he built a career on transcending it. 

We sit in the audience during his first solo recital at the age of seven—a mélange of classical and original compositions—waiting for the moment when jazz will enter the soundtrack of his past. We cling to the wall like proverbial flies as, in a mere five-year span, he joins forces with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis. Jarrett’s tenure with the latter, who convinces him to join after multiple overtures, goes largely unrecorded and survives only through anecdote. By the time Jarrett parts ways with the Miles, it’s 1971, just two years after the founding of ECM Records by producer Manfred Eicher, with whom Jarrett will forge a lasting relationship. Said relationship yields albums—80 between 1971-2020—that were made to exist, just as they exist to have documented a pianist who “had not really become a soloist—he had actually always been one” (pg. 88). 

Jarrett’s “musical syntax” is as recognizable as it is challenging to distill in words. Whether in his traversals of the Great American Songbook with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette or his recording of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (of which he characteristically remarked, “I was actually refusing more than I was giving”), the mosaic we think we know has revealed tile after unprecedented tile. 

All of which serves to validate Sandner’s decision to view jazz through a hypermodern lens, framing its latter-day developments as a recalibration of space among the rubble of the Second World War. And there, in the middle of it all, Jarrett spans the ocean like a bridge between the forward march of Americanism and the traumatic retrogression of the continent. This may be why Sandner concedes in his foreword: “Most of all, though, this music should be heard.” For a musician of Jarrett’s caliber, the best biography remains the discography.

(This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Interview: Keith Jarrett conducted by Timothy Hill

KJ front

This ultra-rare promotional CD from 1994 contains an interview with Keith Jarrett conducted by Timothy Hill. Much of the interview is spent discussing the backstory and recording circumstances of At The Deer Head Inn, Jarrett’s phenomenal live album with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, and Bridge Of Light, a program of classical music composed by Jarrett.

When Jarrett first encountered the Deer Head Inn itself, it was the only place of its kind in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where jazz wasn’t exactly on the hearts and minds of communities far more concerned with everyday practicalities. Jarrett was living in Allentown, where jazz was limited to generic rooms at best. Deer Head was far enough away that he wasn’t really aware of it until he got his first regular gig there, playing drums for local pianist (and Jarret’s personal friend) Johnny Coates. “I learned a lot about what not to do twice,” he recalls of those early gigging days, long before the piano became his forte. After two summers of grabbing the Deer Head by its antlers, sitting in sometimes on guitar (which, incidentally, earned him an invitation from Stan Getz to play in a Calypso band), he left that part of his history behind to dive headlong into his career as a pianist. By the time the Deer Head gig materialized, he hadn’t played there as pianist for nearly three decades.

Many elements came together for that performance to make it what it was. First, the venue was a “piano room” in the truest sense, a place of intimate construction that practically begged for Jarrett’s song. Second was the fact that drummer Jack DeJohnette, his trio go-to, was unable to make it, leading Motian to fill in at the last minute. Third was the “behavior and concentration” of everyone involved—a rapt attention he attributes at least in part to Motian’s involvement. When things come together like that, following a natural flow without depending on “large things,” as he puts it, magic is born.

Jarrett further bows to a certain magic in the recording itself. He mentions the “crucial little keys” of how a player is feeling, and how technology may struggle to capture those details in such a beautiful way. In this case, however, they shine through with utmost clarity, including the vocal exclamations for which he is (in)famously known. “I should’ve written them a thank you note,” he quips, speaking of Peacock and Motian, who he makes a point of noting added their own whoops of excitement in the heat of the moment. “If I’m going to be the culprit, let it be all three of us.” The conversation turns naturally to the tune “Chandra” (included along with “It’s Easy To Remember” at the end of this CD), which Jarrett praises for Motian’s avoidance of sticks altogether. Where any drummer would start with brushes and switch to the punctuation of sticks, Motian’s continuous brushing spoke directly to Jarrett’s heart: “This is what we’ve got now. This is what it is. And it put me in another place, where the expectations were not the same as they would be every time you play.” Thus did Motian pull everyone into the center of things.

At around the time that Bridge Of Light was coming together, he was already working on a commission from Japan to write the Adagio for oboe and string orchestra featured on the album. When told there would be time left in the program, his thoughts turned to the Elegy he was writing for his Hungarian grandmother. Taking such an active role in directing that recording was, for him, like “being in charge of a country,” whereas Deer Head was like “being not in charge and knowing it would be okay.” Such polar, yet parallel, opposites would seem to define his career. At Deer Head, for example, there wasn’t any music until it was played, whereas in a classical setting, anxieties toward perfection ran high. Classical musicians, he avers, should be less obsessed over playing the same music better than anyone else and more concerned about being themselves enough not to care, allowing the music to “bloom for itself” instead. And if blooming is what it’s all about, then Bridge (from which the Adagio and the “Dance” of Jarrett’s violin sonata are also included here) is a veritable field of life.

“You don’t have to be emphatic when you’re doing something beautiful,” says Jarrett of the creative process. “If you emphasize the beauty of something, you might step on it.” And while one might easily flag this statement for hypocrisy, spoken as it is by someone who can stretch a concert staple like “Autumn Leaves” to well over 20 minutes, there’s a sense that Jarrett is always saying what needs to be said and, accordingly, wasting no notes whenever he’s “on.” As he observes of jazz: “It would be as though you were to write poetry in more than one language at a time…and make it somehow into a coherent language of its own.”

As interesting as the above insights are, at best I would say this rarity has value only as an archival curiosity for the Jarrett completist, though it’s always fascinating to hear him speak of his own work. Either way, the objects of this discussion tell more of their past, present, and future than even he could, and perhaps our journey to find and experience them is the strongest bridge of all.

20004-2-cd

Keith Jarrett: Salle Pleyel Paris 1992

KJ INEDITS

Recorded at Salle Pleyel in Paris on October 25, 1992 and produced by Manfred Eicher, this was a limited promotional item offered by the French retail chain Fnac to customers who purchased two qualifying ECM or ECM New Series CDs. Consisting of two exclusive tracks, it’s a poignant snapshot of Jarrett atop a mountain no one else is likely ever to scale.

His perennial encore, “Over The Rainbow,” glistens with lyrical suppleness. Looking back as we can through the lens of retrospection, we find in it the story of an entire career, if not also the life it defines: from the initial stirrings of talent that surely twitched in the young pianist’s fingers, through the chronic fatigue syndrome that would all but hijack his gifts four years later (incidentally, when this disc was offered), and beyond a recovery whose afterglow continues to illuminate ears in the darkest hours. No matter how sweeping, dramatic, and turbulent the experiences that came before, we can hold vigil in these fleeting moments of intimacy before they turn away from us to seek the hand of an ether we have yet to touch.

In the wake of this inward glance, the exuberance of Jarrett’s own “C The Blues” feels like a splash of water on the face. Romping through memories as if they were a muddy riverbank along which the dead and the living dance in celebration of kinship, Jarrett gives every mouth a voice. The colorful ornaments of his right hand are the nurture to his left’s nature, each note a word spoken, a relationship formed, a spirit harnessed, only to fade as quickly as it forms. Like the fog of a window about to be defrosted, it resolves into a clarity of vision such as only he can provide.

These same two tracks also appeared on a CD included with issue No. 672 of the French magazine Jazz in May of 2015:

Jazz Magazine

Jazz Magazine CD

Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity (ECM New Series 2612)

 

Elusive Infinity.jpg

Anna Gourari
Elusive Affinity

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded January 2018, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Water equals time and provides beauty with its double.
Part water, we serve beauty in the same fashion.
–Joseph Brodsky

In the wake of Anna Gourari’s first two ECM New Series recitals, the Russian pianist steps more deeply than ever before into dreamlike repertoire. That said, there’s actually very little in the way of fantasy in the present disc, reconfiguring as it does experiential fragments into an anagram of reality. The album begins and ends with arrangements by Johann Sebastian Bach of slow movements from concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello, respectively. Both are skeletal at first but soon burgeon into a tangle of nerves, veins, and tendons. As fundaments of an ever-growing monument, through whose windows shines a future sun, they send out their pulse as a signal to the unborn. And as a plush interior takes shape, hands lay themselves down as if to sleep and never wake, holding on to melody as a tether to this world before moving on to the next. Elusive, perhaps, but also infinite.

Between these walls, furniture reveals itself to be the seat of our listening. The most prominent sectional is Alfred Schnittke’s Five Aphorisms (1990), which in its cerebral upholstery offers respite for the weary self. Like a tour of a stroke-ridden mind, it holds fast to memories even as it struggles to lasso the words to articulate them. All we emerge with instead is a series of notes, chords, and mosaic rhythms. The central Lento carries its dissonant flesh up a staircase from which gestures leap ahead of the body they describe before finding in the final Grave a double meaning of mood and physical location.

In the shadow of this tower, Giya Kancheli’s Piano piece No. 15 (his theme from Robert Sturua’s adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht) dances like a child without a future, just as his Piano piece No. 23 (theme from Sergei Bodrov’s 2002 film Bear’s Kiss) gilds the frame of recall with harmonious alloy. In kindred spirit, Arvo Pärt’s Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977) finds Gourari aligning her emotional y-axis with the score’s x. Each note seems pulled from the keyboard, spinning polyphony into a chamber of prayer.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Diary – Seven Pieces (2002) bears dedication to Gourari herself, and by that association turns friendship and respect into audible communication. Darkly inflected yet chiseled in light, each piece is a window into the otherss, a symbiotic aesthetic given wings by sensitive performances. There are stories to be told here, but not in the manner of linear narratives, for hints of jazz and freer associations assure us that beauty, urgency, and proclamation all share the same oxygen. This leaves only Wolfgang Rihm’s Zwiesprache (1999), which occupies a region liminal to the rest, where an archaeological dig is already well underway. These dedications are playful yet morose, touching impressions as if they might bleed on contact. We, however, know that in Gourari’s purview no such wounds will ever be inflicted, because healing is never too far behind.

Dénes Várjon: De la nuit (ECM New Series 2521)

De la nuit.jpg

Dénes Várjon
De la nuit

Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 31, 2018

He searched under the bed, around the fireplace,
in the chest: but he found no one.
And he could not understand how the spirit had crept in—
and how he had escaped again.
–E.T.A. Hoffmann, Night Pieces

Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, who last regaled ECM listeners on 2012’s Precipitando, returns with another program of three culturally disparate composers united by the immaterial. Although the blood running through the veins of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) may be genetically dissimilar, in each we find arbitrations of music that, according to the booklet essay by Jürg Stenzl, “far transcended the confines of their time.” The untethered quality of these compositions, each chosen with utmost attention to detail, by virtue of their literary angles interlock in organic conversation. And in rendering them, ECM has found an unparalleled interpreter.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op. 12 of 1837 are comprised of transfixing poetry. In these “character pieces,” linked explicitly to the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul, Schumann eschews sonata form in favor of an emotional mosaic that abides by its own logic. Its foundations support a lighthouse for listeners lost at sea. From the dramatic (Aufschwung and In der Nacht) and tenderly inquisitive (Warum?) to the mythic (Fabel) and dreamlike (Traumes Wirren), Schumann shines his light through one incredible prism after another until, coming to rest after the robust Ende vom Lied, Várjon, too, breathes the sigh of a journeyman closing his eyes with success.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (1908), inspired by a prose-poetry collection of the same name by Aloysius Bertrand, spins those latter impulses into a web of vivid imagery. The lambent Ondine evokes the water sprite of the same name, whose attempts at seduction follow fountain-like trajectories before rejection sends her reeling into the background. Le Gibet (Gallows) is meant to illustrate the body of a hanged man. Morbid yet beautiful, its suspensions take on new meaning. Scarbo returns to folklore in its depiction of the eponymous dwarf, said to haunt nightmares. The sensation of running desperately through a forest of which every tree is a hand tearing at our clothes makes this one of the most astonishing renditions I’ve ever heard of this piece.

The title of Bartók’sSzabadban(1926) means “Out of Doors,” and provides respite in the pastoral truths of its canvas. Some of its many influences include folk songs in the darkly percussive first movement and the harpsichord music of Couperin in the third. Throughout, a sense of comfort is always one step removed, locked in step with the march of a history that has all but left these jewels behind. Like the final movement, each scene is totally committed to its own unfolding, until we’re ready to work it back into shape as a promise to return.

Till Fellner: In Concert – Beethoven/Liszt (ECM New Series 2511)

2511 X

Till Fellner
In Concert: Beethoven/Liszt

Till Fellner piano
Années de pèlerinage
Concert recording, June 2002
Wien, Musikverein, Großer Saal
Tonmeister: Gottfried Zawichowski
Engineer: Andreas Karlberger
An ORF Recording (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Österreich 1)
Sonata No. 32
Concert recording, October 2010
Middlebury College Performing Arts Series
Mahaney Center for the Arts, Robison Hall
Tonmeister: Mark Christensen
Mastering: Markus Heiland
An ECM Production
Release date: November 2, 2018

But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?
–Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

After a mosaic of recordings spanning the gamut from J. S. Bach to Thomas Larcher, Till Fellner returns to ECM with a pastiche of live recordings from 2002 and 2010. The first presents the Austrian pianist in his home capital for year one of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Inspired by the composer’s trip to Switzerland from 1835 to 1836 but unpublished until 1855, this aural scrapbook is alive with alpine imagery and motifs, encompassing firsthand memories, friendships, and even political views. It’s on the latter note that the collection begins with La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. This stately introduction to an otherwise flowing work sets a precedent of architectural soundness that infuses all to follow. Contrast this with the watery beauties of Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d’une source, and you already have a sense of the variety to which Liszt had eloquent access, rendered by Fellner with dynamic temperament.

While many sections, such as the sunlit Pastorale and Eglogue (the latter riffing on a shepherd’s song), are built around fleeting impressions, each nevertheless feels complete. This may be due to the fact nearly all of the music is revised from earlier material, an exception being the tempestuous Orage. No matter the duration, emotional integrity is the primary ingredient, so that the descriptions of Vallée d’Obermann’s thirteen precious minutes feel just as thick as Le mal du pays. Both seem to find the composer yearning for home when away from it, if not also for distant travels when in it, lending themselves to a score that only serves to nourish Fellner’s radiance. All the above shades of meaning cohere in Les cloches de Genève, by which the pianist elicits rich yet subtle sonorities.

If Liszt is a photographer, then Ludwig van Beethoven is a filmmaker whose magnum opus is surely the Sonata No. 32 in c minor. His Opus 111 shares its key signature with the Fifth Symphony and other monumental works, and provides a fitting end to his sonata cycle. As suggested in William Kinderman’s deeply considered liner essay, “The pair of movements of this sonata interact as a contrasting duality suggesting strife and fulfillment, evoking qualities which have stimulated much discussion, reminding commentators of the ‘here’ and the ‘beyond,’ or ‘samsara’ and ‘nirvana.’” Such spiritual language is no mere hyperbole, but an activation point of Beethoven’s grander concerns over the effects of art on the soul. As The Art of Fugue was to Bach, so is the Sonata No. 32 to Beethoven with regard to variation.

To be sure, Fellner touches upon those grander narratives, but more importantly keeps his ears attuned to the details. In the opening movement, for example, his arpeggios feel like quills on paper. Balancing stream-of-consciousness impulses with deeply articulated control, he links an unbreakable chain of progression. The second and final movement begins almost timidly, as if sifting through old notes for fear of what one might find, only to be surprised by a joy one never knew was waiting for rediscovery. Urgency compels the left hand while trills in the right signal a transformation of flesh into glory. “The transformational power of this closing music,” says Kinderman, “acts like a utopian symbol, which seeks to neutralize if not dispel the tragic reality embodied in the weighty opening movement of the work.” And perhaps weight is the most appropriate physical property by which to analyze what’s happening here, for regardless of size and scope, the relationship of every note to gravity is meticulously examined, its potential for flight believed in like a prayer.

Momo Kodama: Point and Line (ECM New Series 2509)

Point and Line

Momo Kodama
Point and Line

Momo Kodamapiano
Recorded January 2016, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 27, 2017

Four years after making her ECM New Series debut with La vallée des cloches, pianist Momo Kodama returns with a program that is equally adventurous in expectation and inevitable in hindsight, this time shuffling the Études pour piano, L 136 (1915) of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Etude I-VI for piano, SJ 1180 (2011-13) of Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955) into an integrated experience. Having performed both cycles separately, here Kodama imagines them in dialogue with each other. “A number of elements in Hosokawa’s music,” she writes in her liner note, “make me sense a proximity to Debussy. One is the freedom of its formal design; another is its interplay and layering of colors. What I fins especially remarkable in both is a capacity for poetic utterance and ranges widely between lyricism and drama, between meditation and virtuosic display.” As in acts of translation between languages, what separates is also what binds, and Kodama is a masterful interpreter in that regard, fluent as she is in every dialectical nuance at hand.

“Hand” is indeed the operative word, as Kodama’s parallel communicators ride over the intimate cascades of Debussy’s Etude XI before swirling the waters below in defiance of prettiness. Thus, whatever conversational approach we might attribute to process isn’t necessarily between two (or more) people, but rather between different shades of the same musical self. Kodama’s rendering thereof illuminates a cohesive identity, and she, as surely the composers themselves, revels in disruptions, treating each as an opportunity for productive change.

Hosokawa’s Etude II, from which this album get its name, takes its descriptive heading with beautiful literalness, contrasting sustained notes and dotted clusters, the latter as sprays of baby’s breath in a wider bouquet. A spirit of favorable conflict prevails, as also in Debussy’s Etude III, wherein points and lines are converted into poetry. Not that what follows is a series of impressionistic vignettes, but a space in which every utterance counts. As dynamics lob from soft to loud and back again, we are primed for the versification of Hosokawa’s “Calligraphy, Haiku, 1 Line” (Etude III), of which dramatic outbursts amid resonant silences become organic allies.

As the composers continue to seesaw between foreground and background, something surprising begins to happen: we begin to lose track of who wrote what. For while the reveries of Etudes IV and VIII have an obviously Debussean flavor, we might also read distinctly Hosokawan associations into the second and first etudes. And while the tail-chasing details of Hosokawa’s first and fourth etudes reveal a childlike dedication to play (the latter’s subtitle, “Ayatori, Magic by 2 Hands, 3 Lines,” makes reference to the cat’s cradle game), his respect for Debussy peeks from behind the curtains of “Lied, Melody” (Etude VI), a high point that pushes darkness and light through lattices of memory.

Retrospection seems equally vital to sustaining Debussy’s mocking Etude I and Hosokawa’s visceral “Anger” (Etude V), and by the emotional clarity of those expressions turns anticipation into reflection. Like Debussy’s Etude VII, they draw a compass between our ears, for while the notes may go up and down, the hands travel right and left, leaving us with a navigational instrument to cherish as we leave this land behind into uncharted waters.