Max de Wardener, Music for Detuned Pianos, performed by Kit Downes
(Village Green: vinyl VGLP063, CD VGCD063. LP/CD Review by Geoff Winston)
Music for Detuned Pianos is deceptively simple. This thoughtful, meditative, reflective and introspective collection of compositions is rooted in some of contemporary music’s most complex and sophisticated structural systems, yet these are windows to atmospheres and statements which make it a record to soak up, to bathe in; a balm, but a balm with a cutting edge.
Max de Wardener is an established composer and musician with a broad palette spanning contemporary classical through to jazz and electronica. For this piano-focussed project with a difference, he identified Kit Downes as the keyboard played with the corresponding breadth of vision to interpret and perform the ten pieces that make up the album. This is their first collaboration and de Wardener, in our conversation about the album, described Downes as having ‘super open ears’ and ‘the sense of pulse that jazz musicians have … with a brilliant sense of time and touch and the ability to make [the pieces] not sound like notated music.’ Downes, an organ scholar, had worked with detuned organ so was no stranger to de Wardener’s ideas.
The project took up four years with the recording spanning two years in a range of studio locations. The premise was to work with detuned pianos, with retunings based on harmonic series tuned to naturally occurring overtones, inspired by James Tenney’s intensely textured pianola work dedicated to Conlon Nancarrow, and to complement these with live, acoustic, one-take pieces with ‘normally tuned pianos’ (known as Equal Temperament).
Pianos were variously detuned to take in unconventional tuning systems used by La Monte Young, Harry Partch and Tenney, and the final recordings involved overdubbings and subtle insinuations of synthesiser and tape delays to create additional spatial dimensions. The challenging detunings were carried out with great skill, often attended to between takes, by Laurence Fischer.
The album, subtle and sensitive as it is, thrives on changes of pace and texture, yet works as a unified, flowing entity – originally forty-eight minutes, pared down by de Wardener to an essential thirty-four.
The delicacy of the lead in to the opening track, The Sky Has a Film, is quietly overtaken as Downes improvises a light piano solo over a repetitive, rhythmic piano figure, recorded with the damper down, with peripheral electronics underscoring the mood and blending with the mildly unsettling detuning to set down the marker. The electronics return to background, then to reshape as foreground washes in Redshift as the melody is carefully picked out by Downes, then contrasted by the gently abrasive disharmony of Blueshift, with its off-kilter feel, followed through in Deranged Landscape where recordings of the same piano detuned two ways are combined for an ethereal, marginally out-of-body sensation.
The first piece that de Wardener wrote for the album is the obsessive, fast-paced Color Cry, written for a detuned Yamaha Disklavier’s player piano program, combining three interlocking harmonic series (on C, G and D), and taking its title from Len Lye’s extraordinary, 1953 short animated film set to Sonny Terry solo harmonica, uncannily echoed in de Wardener’s score. Spell restates the theme of imaginative combinations with a version of La Monte Young tuning for synthesiser hovering in the background to create a sense of gently threatening air currents while a conventional tuning is utilised to define the improvised melodic thread with careful understatement. The bright, spirited dance, Foxtrot, masterfully interpreted by Downes, has no improvisation.
The album is dedicated to Zimbabwean master musician, Chartwell Dutiro, with whom de Wardener often played, with Star Song mirroring the mbira’s rounded echoes, recessions and returns. Partch is one of de Wardener’s lynchpin composers and the album is rounded off with the two separate overdubbed tunings of Doppelgänger to replicate the lush complexity of Partch’s 3D Diamond Marimba tunings.
The attractive cover incorporates Penelope Umbico‘s images of mountains reimagined through smartphone app filters.
This is a very satisfying album, testimony to great collaborative spirit in its concept and execution, and one that offers a feeling of exploratory optimism, a quality much needed in the world we face today.