CD Review: Here (and there), Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi (piano w/electronics)

Here (and there), Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, (piano w/electronics), various composers, Innova (846)

by Robert Spalding Newcomb

Over the past two decades, advances in technology and performance virtuosity have evolved in parallel.  A primary challenge for composers and performers working in contemporary music creation has been to construct architectures which allow for the expression of both these disciplines.  As the notion of genre ebbs with time, we are aware that we, more than any generation to date, have the tools to merge macro-vocabularies, while also maintaining our local, personal dialect of nuance.

The collection of work on this release, in the context of the highly distilled format of solo acoustic piano and fixed media and live electronics, welcomes this challenge!  The artists give us an enticing suite of ‘small pieces’, each touching us emotionally, and uniquely commenting on strategies for managing the boundary between live and recorded human performers and programmed machines.

 Crystal Springs – Piano and Fixed Media (Phillip Schroeder)

I – Reminiscent of early Brian Eno ‘tape loop music’, in this section the piano seems to play the role of background texture, whereas the somewhat plodding piano sampling steps forward in a forthright series of sympathetic harmonic statements, defining the arc of the two layers.

II – Here, the piano part swirls with delicate Fibonacci pitch sequenced elements, sweetly ascending/descending phraseology with oddly ‘jazz like’ tonality; cymbal samples and inside piano strumming remain subtle and effectively sheathing of front layer piano motifs.

III – A dramatic rolling undercurrent of samples mixed with sustained piano bass notes, with a ‘dripping’ of treble piano pitches, not fully linked to the clarity of (II) Fibonacci based fabric, nor truly a restatement or extraction of those elements, leading into … well, softness and silence, after a possible promise of climax.

Swirling Sky – Piano and Fixed Media (Ed Martin)

In the delicate entrance, as the composer shows us the ‘being taken over’ by the immensity of the sky…the dissonant yet overall calm intensity of the piano harmonies splayed against the slightly micro-tonality (2:10) of the fixed media does indeed swirl ‘up’ and ‘around’ into a pseudo-confluence of pitch elements; then to find a clear space momentarily, and almost rhythmic pace for a few equal length piano phrases…yet they again dissolve into (4:40) a chaos, a swarm of intelligently delay-induced replications of processed keyboard arpeggiated ‘clouds’  (5:18).  The last minute backs off into a reflective state, a withdrawal (?) from the loss, or prismatic recovery of, the perspective that comes with the awareness of one’s minute significance amidst the grand design of the universe.

green is passing – Piano and Electronics (Jeff Herriott)

With a stoic beginning of tonal statement, periods of silence that set a landscape of both intellectual precision and visceral intensity…each silence prefacing a further introduction to a tonal element, an expansion of palette.  At 4:00, the subtlety of the ‘electronic reverb’ appears more intentionally present.  Though harmonically suspended throughout, at 6:55, a deeper sense of resolution is allowed to seep through the serenity of spatial separation given the listener for self-reflection and even introspection throughout this piece.  The final 30 seconds deliver a hovering swell of a final piano gesture captured in a subtle resonance.

Summer Phantoms: Nocturne – Piano and Fixed Media (Brian Belet)

Immediately intense, with a densely layered electronic palette, taut, yet expectant of a coming release into, yes, piano gestures, equally intense yet oddly playful…rolling gradually (2:27) into an interplay between pianist and rapid stereo image movement of electronic variations (the algorithmic component featured as an embedded conversation within the human/computer dialogue).

Rhythmic artifacts of the algorithms lend a pulsation to the center section (5:30-7:50), which is both mirrored and countered by tightly interwoven piano figures.

At 7:50, the pianist, sensing an opening to expose human musicianship, stylistic instincts and what had been till now a pent up heart energy, is freed to steer the musical direction toward a cadence, with a clear path to a crescendo emerging at 9:10, after a first and singular pianistic expression of diatonic pitch infrastructure amidst the preceding history of tentative interleaving of the two players – media and pianist.  The final 15-20 seconds lean first toward a climactic collision, and then retreat into the ‘shadows’ as a final pianistic chromatic gesture is sunken deep in the final fadeout, whilst rapid scraping attack motifs rail on in the background of the electronic palette.

Confetti Variations – Piano and Fixed Media (Tom Lopez)

The admittedly ‘collage’ and dual source material premise for this piece, gave me more expectation and perhaps hesitation, than others on the disc.  The directly quotational approach to composition immediately sets this piece off from the rest of the album, and requires added criteria for analysis and appreciation.

During the first half of the piece, the nearly continual dual layer of sonic material presentation, separated by spatial and note-basis versus grain/sound based, inarguably delivers a dramatic ‘punch’, but it at times wants of more cohesion and interdependency.  The overall impact is unequivocally that of a musician playing outdoors in a mixture of thunderstorm and wind, generally ignoring it and continuing on despite it.  The use of short repetitive piano cycles lends support to the impression of two boxers co-existing within a shared stage.

There is a certain shared pathos between these two characters as they maintain a safe distance from each other, occasionally stepping back to witness the anomalies of the other’s sound and gesture world.

Piano passages of special beauty live at 6:30-7:10, 7:40-8:20, 9:35-12:15, and 14:10-15:00.

(12:00-14:00) The overarching employ of ‘environmental recordings’, bringing listeners into close contact with deeply rooted nature based memories, and its intermingling with historically recognizable piano passages, retains much of the ‘conceptual art’ lineage, while adding the ebb and flow of tension/release patterning of almost cacophonic tightly bundled piano repeats, with extended periods of soft brilliance from the pianist’s touch.  In the end, the frenzy of storm leads to the calm and balm of a sedated land, filled with moisture and sustenance.  The tree peeper has the last word.

The pleasure of being lost – Piano and Fixed Media (Jim Fox)

Manipulated spoken word lends a deeply human liquidity and phraseology to the frission of the haunting electronic layer, piano sparseness acting as a stairway linking the two.  The introspective poetry, and it is poetry, beckons us into the interior space of the heart, recalling a journey, with the mind attempting to provide signposts of ‘what happened.’

Throughout the gently undulating waves (‘introductions’) of thematic imagery, the piano statements remain positive, optimistic, despite the foreboding overarching shadow of the timbral hue gathering around the innocent sincerity of the passages of text, which push forward against the wall of normalization lent by the electronics.

(5:00) As the textual images expand in abstraction, so too does the sense of connectivity between ‘wall and space’ and piano interludes.  (9:00) The intimacy of the voice, the occasionally sensual images, interwoven with moments of physical details of the body’s journey in the physical plane, amidst the heart’s sacred path toward eternity, become mesmerizing, contemplative and reach a climax of understanding (12:35-13:00) as to the profound meaning and meaninglessness of what we experience within and without.

Robert Spalding Newcomb is a composer, musician, writer, poet, software developer, yoga instructor, and IT professional, living in Ann Arbor, MI, USA. (contact –

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