INTERVIEW: Francesco Tristano – Piano Circle Songs (UK premiere RFH on 20 Sept)

Francesco Tristano
Photo credit: Marie Staggsr
Luxembourg-born musician FRANCESCO TRISTANO’s new album Piano Circle Songs marks a return to piano music, after his recent work in techno. The CD features collaborations with Chilly Gonzales. Ahead of the album’s UK premiere performance at the Royal Festival Hall, he spoke by phone from Berlin to AJ Dehany about the “enhanced piano experience” he will be offering:

“I try not to repeat myself.” says Francesco Tristano. “My last few records were mostly dance floor friendly techno productions because that was what I was into. I don’t think I could have done this album the same way if I hadn’t done those records.”

Francesco Tristano’s new album Piano Circle Songs on Sony Classical recalls the deceptively sophisticated folk naïve of Michael Nyman’s soundtrack to The Piano and the chiming sound world of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, which it echoes in its acoustic spaciousness and subtle electronic texturing.

“I had an urge to go back to basics, which really meant to spend time with myself and my piano, and not think of the 20 synthesizers that I have in my studio, and five drum machines and six sequencers and eight FX racks. I felt like I was willing to get out of this comfort zone which is to have as many sound sources as possible and to really concentrate only on one source which is the piano.”

The piano is close-miked, giving a bell-like immediacy to the sound. Francesco says “I didn’t want to project the sound of this album to the listener, I wanted to bring the listener inside the piano, to give the impression you’re surrounded by this massive instrument.”

It’s a remarkable step for a classically trained pianist who has recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Berio’s complete piano works, and can romp confidently through repertoire from Bach’s Partitas to Ravel’s Piano Concerto.

I ask him if the ‘naïve’ sense of Piano Circle Songs relates to his parenting experience—his children are five and two. “That’s one part,” he says. “The other is that my primary impulse has always been rhythm, percussion, beats, groove. That’s my comfort zone, so I needed to step out of that, to write music that is melodic and harmonic and that eventually my kids could sing. And they do. When I was working on a melody I was playing it over and over and when I realized the kids were picking up on it I said ‘Yeah, I’m going to keep that’.”

Piano Circle Songs has a surface simplicity such that you can imagine playing it yourself. The album opens with Circle Song a beautifully memorable and melodic folk-inflected tune. Second track This Too Shall Go goes further in dunking the melody in disarming dissonances. “I think [Ryuichi] Sakamoto said the great melody is something you think you know when you hear it but as soon as you think ‘I’ve heard this before’ it throws you off. I wanted to write music that is accessible, that people can sing or whistle but then there is always some kind of disturbing element that throws you off course. It could be just one chord, one sound, or one harmony, one note that makes you feel maybe this is not something I knew.”

I mention a comment by the artist Paul Klee: “Genius is an error in the system.” Islamic artists deliberately build a flaw into their patterning to break up the perfection that only God may possess. It’s the humanising kink. It’s Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” Francesco leavens the melodic lyricism with dissonances to keep things interesting. “If you’re gonna be 100% lean and melodic and kind of pretty there is nothing to compare it against, but if you have one chord which is really dark and threatening or kind of ‘off’, then the melody can take its meaning and depth from this chord which is the opposite. It’s a balancing game.”

He explains his obsession with circles on this album. “The circle is a kind of a perfect form and yet it’s got a very disturbing element which is the number Pi. Pi is the wrong note in perfection. It’s the wrong note in the perfect melody when all of a sudden you hear a sound that’s really throwing you off. We cannot capture Pi. Pi is… it’s a trip.” The album nerdishly abounds with threes and twos and circles, from the three different iterations of Circle Song to Monologue for Two and Third Haiku, inspired by the mixture of rigour and atmosphere in Japanese micropoetry. “Haiku is this kind of non-poetry which has a very nice formal aspect but also this mysterious minimalism. How can you say something without saying anything?”

Piano Circle Songs bears similarities to another brilliant crossover pianist’s most recent album, Tigran Hamsyan’s An Ancient Observer, which similarly works with a scrupulously reduced compositional palette to release not so much a timeless quality as an ancient ritual sense. Francesco himself has commented before that “ancient music is like techno.” He expands, “There’s something about the ritualistic quality of music. Music as a ritual, as a kind of a procedure which transforms you and enriches you. That’s quite different from virtuoso entertainment. In old music there was a universal quality which was also a rhythmic quality and me being a techno kat I find parallels. I think they are connected.

“The ritual notion of the circle works on many levels. Of course every day of your life is gonna be some kind of cycle, and it’s always the same but it’s never quite the same. Kids are really a trip. They change mood in half a second and then you think ‘Oh, now they are in this mood’ but then next thing you know they’ve changed their mood again. Their circles go much faster, they go at an incredible speed. It’s as if you live the four seasons in one day. But they’re not four seasons, they’re like 400 seasons. And yet in the evening when they fall asleep, that’s it, it’s the end of the circle.”

Piano Circle Songs features Canadian producer and songwriter Chilly Gonzales on four of the tracks. The collaboration came at a crucial point in Francesco’s thinking. “I believe in the power of timing. Things rarely happen if you try to force them. We got in touch about a year ago. We were re-tweeting and stuff, and at some point I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do something’. He said ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ Then we had to figure out how we were going to collaborate. We thought the best thing was to prepare some music individually and meet in the studio to enrich each other’s music with our own touch.”

The album closes with a mysterious Third Haiku – with no first or second. “Yeah, that’s a funny one. That’s got quite extreme processing. We went through a tape machine and de-pitched it. It didn’t sound at all like the way it sounds now.”

Monologue For Two presents another zen-like problem: how can a monologue be for two? “I liked the idea of the paradox, that’s very cool. It’s also because Chilly, as you might know, is one funny motherfucker— pardon my French. He wrote Tryst for me, a tryst being a short love affair and also playing with my name. Then I said ‘You know, I’m gonna write a monologue for us’. The score for that is very open. There’s lots of improvisation. We wanted to make the two pianos sound as if it was just one. We played at opposite ends of the room. The aim of the sound design was to capture the mids in the middle and the extremes on the right and left so you have a very engrossing sound experience and you hear noises you’re not supposed to hear.”

Francesco is currently solo touring Piano Circle Songs, playing London’s Royal Festival Hall on 20 September. I saw him there seven years ago during the London Jazz Festival when he was collaborating with electronic artist Murcof. “I learned a lot with Murcof because he is such a sound wizard. I wanna bring this to Piano Circle Songs and make it an enhanced piano experience. With this tour I’m hoping to kind of possess these tunes like they are my breathing. I’m quite excited. I am naked. I am outside my comfort zone. My wish is to develop these pieces, to expand them. The album is just a first step.”

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. – website

Francesco Tristano performs Piano Circle Songs at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank on 20 September. The album is released on Sony Classical.

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