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Piano Moods

Our first radio blogger explores the ambient freak zone with the terminally chill piano

In this series, we hand a page over to the excellent blogger, Brad Barry, whose blissful C60 Radio has soundtracked many a late night in the office. After the mix series went down a few months, we've been so desperate for him to start up again that we decided to commission him. Every month he'll explore a different strand of the vast and wonderfully fruitful tape / outre underground, and this month he's looking at pianos. 

What is this?

I’ve been trying to describe this type of music for a long time. Experimental sounds too grand and atonal. Underground sounds too scuzzy and vague. Ambient? Drone? Electronic? Hypnagocic pop? Kosmische? Sound art?

While I’m not going to try to taxonomize the genre, I am going to use this mix series as an opportunity to explore the connections between these related, but distinct types of music. After hosting a cassette-only radio show for years, I’m excited to reach into the world of vinyl, CD, and digital releases, while also trying to make connections with the past. I’ll be searching for the line between art and art in music and looking for relationships between modern releases and the pieces that came before them.

With this edition, I wanted to look specifically at the piano. When I think of early experimental music, I think of avant grade composers, the Schoenbergs, Saties, and Cages. And, mostly through necessity, the piano served as the primary instrument for this early experimentation. Even though we now have access to more instruments than those early composers could have dreamed of, the piano is still being used to novel, surprising, and beautiful experimental music.

 01. Alice Coltrane — “Prema” Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland [Jazz Alliance; 1981]

What better way to start this series than with the otherworldly Alice Coltrane. I recently found a recording of a live performance she did on a jazz radio show, and I was blown away by how she was able to make a solo piano performance sound like the dense, swirling pieces on her records. Here I looped some parts of her performance of “Prema” and let them play out for a few minutes, but I highly recommend tracking down the entire recording.

02. William Basinski — “92982.1” 92982 [2062; 2009]

Continuing his exploration into the power of the repeated phrase, here William Basinksi works with some fragile piano pieces he originally recorded in 1982. Basinski sometimes gets criticism because he is essentially playing short, repeating loops with only minor variations, but I’m always amazed by the deep melancholy he is able to summon from such small fragments of source material.

03. Tu M' — “Monochrome # 04” Monochromes Vol. 1 [Line; 2009]

From Basinski, we move to Tu M’ with a piece from their Monochromes series. While the Italian duo doesn’t use piano as a sound source, their goal for these recordings was to treat the laptop as the modern equivalent of the classical piano. Their sustained, subtly textured tones are unique to their dual laptop set-up, but one gets the feeling that they are composing and working with dynamics just as if they were sitting at a much older version of a keyboard.

04. ARP & Anthony Moore — “Piano Waves” FRKWYS Vol. 3 [RVNG, Intl.; 2010]

This particular album was a big inspiration for this mix. Part of RVNG, Intl.’s series pairing older and newer artists for collaboration, Vol. 3 pairs Anthony Moore, a great British minimalist composer of the 70s, and Alexis Georgopoulos, whose fantastic ARP project has put out some really great synth-based records over the last few years. Together, they created a gorgeous album using the instrumental palette of chamber music. Violins create the buzzy, overlapping tones that we usually expect from saw-tooth synths and the piano, as heard here, supplies great waves of rich harmonics.  

05. Counterspark — “6:25” The Halpern Experiment [Resting Bell; 2010]

I layered this Counterspark track underneath the Arp & Anthony Moore piece. Though I don’t know much about the artist, this album was created out of loops culled from a “healing sounds” tape by legendary, prolific New Age artist Steven Halpern. The result is a bubbling, blurred take on Halpern’s twinkling atmospherics and electric piano.

06. Jordan De La Sierra — “Music for Gymnastics” Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose [Unity; 1977]

This last piece is one that I’ve been eager to share for a while. Introduced to me by my friend Maxime Guitton, this piece of strangely tuned, atmospheric piano playing is part of a hypnotic two-hour double album. Though information on De La Sierra is hard to come by, the record sleeve implies that his piano improvisations were first recorded in a Berkeley studio, but played back and recorded again in San Fransisco’s Grace Cathedral. The result is nothing short of amazing. The long, dense reverberations combined with De La Sierra’s repetitive, subtly shifting piano figures create the same mesmerizing melancholy that the more modern sound artists in this mix are feeling out to this day.

Brad Barry is an American musician, writer and curator. You can follow his Tumblr here.