Nestled within a constellation of classical minimalism, modal jazz, and electronic, there has lately been some wonderful music made for the piano. Seth Horvitz, who normally produces hard-hitting minimal techno as Sutekh, recently released a beautiful record for solo piano in eight “studies” of theoretical technique. Emmanuel Witzthum, a.k.a. Whisperer, asked Ju Ping Song to play his track, “Still”, on record and came up with one of 2010’s unequivocal piano gems, even though almost nobody heard it. And the Berlin-based duo Swod, consisting of Oliver Doerell and Stephan Wohrmann, have been placing piano at the front and center of their post-classical musings over three records between 2004 and 2011.
Swod is a duo that, like so many sound artists of this century, confounds those who wish to classify it in no uncertain terms. Take this record’s “Intro 2”, a gorgeous dip into a river of ebbing and flowing piano harmonics. It sounds like neo-classical, or perhaps it’s more like jazz, a group of modal riffs arranged both sequentially and in layers. But wait, what are those noises atop the notes? Bats? Rats? In any case, it’s a sample, heavily doctored, which makes us want to reach for the electronic tag. Yet Drei, and “Intro 2”, are really no more electronic than Whisperer’s record, Shroud, in which he paired the entirely piano-based “Still” with “Shimmer”, a long, processed drone. Swod, like Whisperer, understand that such styles form a unique and lovely blend unto itself.
Speaking of loveliness, Drei features some of Swod’s prettiest music, hands down. Look no further than “Eins” and “Intro 2”, the first and last tracks respectively, which pair the technique of Philip Glass with the soul of Bill Evans. Wild and winsome, “Hellerau” and “I Am Here” may set the bar for all their future songs. Swod aren’t exactly known or respected for going nuts — they have an image of self-control that many Teutonic musicians are quite familiar with — but when they get a little loopy on the rolling, rollicking “Hellerau”, which pairs an elliptical piano rhythm with ancient machine noises, it’s nearly ecstatic. By comparison, “I Am Here” is practically a barn-burner, the kind of piano romp that would sound insanely good in a concert hall.
The problem with Drei repeats the problem with Gehen in 2004 and Sekunden in 2007, which is that a good percentage of the music feels draggy, overly academic, and not much fun. “Sans Peau” aims for mainstream electronica by phoning in a beat to accompany the laggard piano line. And if that doesn’t turn you off, you still may not like “Gemein”, in which a despondent piano wallows below a sample of a woman repeating the titular word. There’s plenty more where that came from, and when I listen to Drei, I hear two different records: one of them stodgy and stuck in the past, and the other one looking toward the future with a glint in its eye and imagination to spare. It’s in the moments when they marry their considerable skill with an almost childlike viewpoint that they achieve a sense of wonderment.