To say that this is an odd disc which I am having a hard time classifying would hardly be an insult—it is, for all that, an extremely interesting experiment, if not entirely successful. It’s the kind of disc that presents the listener with a wide (if not quite wide enough) range of options and invites a number of different reactions, and this kind of multi-faceted approach can achieve success where a more focused aesthetic might fail—where it fails is, unfortunately, where is falls into overly similar patterns.
The Pingipung label—another of those German electronic music labels that seem to be reproducing like rabbits under the back porch—has dedicated their sixth release to the many varied moods of the piano. The piano is quite possibly the most diverse and multifaceted musical instruments in the history of the world, so it should come as no surprise that even an ostensibly experimental label would be drawn to the sonic possibilities. Over the course of this disc, the sound of the piano is exploited in almost every conceivable way, from straight-ahead playing, to digital manipulation, to what sounds like being rapped across the lid with a mallet.
The closest analogy that springs to mind for this kind of project is actually pretty far afield from the shores of electronic music. If you recall the 1993 film adaptation of John Grisham’s mega-bestseller The Firm, one of the more interesting facets of a basically forgettable movie was the score by Dave Grusin. I remember at the time seeing a program on the recording of the film’s music: Grusin’s score used the piano exclusively, and not just the 88 keys on the surface of the keyboard, but the entire piano—the wooden body, the echoing cavity, the plucked strings. It seemed to me an ingeniously postmodern use of an endlessly useful instrument, an admission of the experimental “found-instrument” ethos propounded by the likes of Einsturzende Neubauten into the strange world of big-budget filmmaking. But, essentially, it made for an interesting soundtrack—just look at the fact that I can’t remember a damn thing about that movie but that the soundtrack was pretty good.
Here we are, five years into the new millennium, and the possibilities of the piano are still being explored. Unfortunately, not every track on Pingipung Plays the Piano is a winner—there’s a sameness that sets in over certain of the tracks, a sparsely minimal ethic that can be occasionally monotonous. Something like Florian Grote’s “Im Wind”, while not a bad little composition by any means, simply fails to hold the listener’s interest for a sustained period. You’ve got a simply melody being played on a piano and a few digital bits, including a rising chorus of static. Over the course of three minutes it doesn’t really do a lot. It does, however, segue into Springintgut’s “Canvas”, which takes the experiment into a far more interesting place, putting seemingly random but well-chosen, melancholy chords against a rhythmically complex digital beat.
Adam Butler’s “Vermillion” is an example of the least interesting type of experimenting—you hear a piano being played very slowly and deliberately in what sounds like a huge space. The awareness of atmosphere and mood is the only real innovation in the recording. Thankfully, however, it’s followed by Thaddi’s “Three Difficult Words”, which begins as a nice piano piece but evolves into an interesting techno movement, in the vein of something off Orbital’s Snivelization album. The further away from the notion of simply playing the piano the artists get, the better the results—the more liberties taken with the instrument, the more enjoyable the music. Nils Frahm’s brooding, Aphex Twin-influenced “Durton” makes a far more compelling listen than Lawrence’s unadorned “Two Minutes in August”. I especially liked Hauschka’s melodically complex “Red Pencil”, which uses a slight echoing effect to create layers within the shadows of the larger sound. While not completely compelling, the disc does contain a number of interesting moments—a pretty good batting average for an experiment of the type.