Once, not long ago, I overheard a conversation between two people in a music hall. “The prepared piano lacks dynamics,” one of them said. “The prepared piano is dynamics,” the other replied. The actual performance distracted me from reaping the fruits of this improvised symposium, so I never managed to get to the bottom of it, but when Dan Trueman’s Nostalgic Synchronic started vibrating in my room, the answer revealed itself in front of me in all its shininess: “who cares”. As the first, uneven notes of “Prelude” introduce the album, the sensation is that, no matter how good or bad, this is not a record like many others.
And it is not simply because the instrument at the centre of all compositions is a digital prepared piano, one whose sound is carefully lacerated by a software — bitKlavier — that bends the waves in the same way as the nails and paper clips do on the classic one. Pianist (and percussionist, conductor, writer and teacher) Adam Sliwinski, of So Percussion fame amongst other notable things, does an excellent job in giving life to the tortuous, deviated idea of music that is Trueman’s. The digital piano is simply a means providing a palette, a machine that obeys the rules or pure inspiration, where the sound is no longer tied to tonality, so that it can aspire to becoming reflection, rather than representation.
Not screws, but algorithms modify the digital, virtual machinery of this non-instrument. A utopian endeavour, true, but upon hearing a piece like “Etude No. 4, Marbles”, one can’t help but wonder if, dynamic or not, the prepared piano (be it of a mechanic or digital nature) is indeed the bearer of a new way of conceiving melody. The doubt is cast by the beautiful melodies that haunt “Etude No. 5, Wallumrød”, where the dissonances are smothered in melody, where the sum of all parts becomes harmony while still retaining the attributes which are proper of the altered instrument.
Ingenuous, original and definitely creative, these etudes are obviously in debt with John Cage, but the spasmodic pursuit of new artistic directions, in this instance, is mediated by the overall melodic design, by the crawling of a subtle, yet sturdy filament that connects the American Maestro with a more traditional stance or even with Ligeti. The notes slip into unpredictable colours, the moods change in a rapid display of pleasant precariousness, but the sound remains rooted to a core that is unchanging and easily identifiable throughout the record.
For this reason it doesn’t surprise us to know that Trueman’s inspiration lies in the musical heritage of the already mentioned Ligeti, Bach and even Chopin, because it only takes one spin of this album to hear them crowd the pentagram while the listener’s attention is understandably focused on the apparent cacophony. The beauty is in the disparity, in the variation, in the discrepancy and in the imbalance. Take away one of these seemingly negative attributes and the positive will prevail, the proportions will implode and nothing will be left of this. And that would be an utter shame. Dynamic or not.