By titling this collection of solo piano pieces Pianoworks, Matthew Cooper seems to signal that this latest Eluvium release is to be taken as more than a piece of pop ambient mood music. Rather, this is a collection of serious compositions.
The distinction, for the most part, works. Cooper’s first piano-centered record, An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death (2004), was sparser and more aligned with the minimalist philosophy of shaping silence and space. Here, Cooper fills space with melodies. Where An Accidental Memory could be guilty of the common critique of ambient minimalism, that it is under-developed or that it builds pretty melodies that don’t necessarily go anywhere, the 13 pieces on Pianoworks are more fully developed and do progress through identifiable shifts towards satisfactory conclusions.
Album opener “Recital” evokes, as do many of the pieces here, memories of childhood with its static fluidity. There’s a sense of energy being suppressed here, held back lest it burst open and venture beyond control, much like the nervous energy of the young prodigy on the piano bench. Similarly, “Quiet Children” resonates with a mix of nostalgic melancholy; it’s bright chords evoking Vince Guaraldi’s 1950’s recordings. “Underwater Dream” returns the listener to the looping, slowly evolving patterns of Eluvium’s best-known work.
In all, Pianoworks is an affecting collection that presents Eluvium at his most accessible. Where An Accidental Memory could be called a late-night chill record, Pianoworks might best be labelled as dinner music. That term, in many circles, could be read as an insult, basically calling the work “middlebrow”, but to do so ignores the reality of how a significant number of its listeners consumes music. This is a collection of piano pieces composed for the listener’s direct or indirect enjoyment; it rewards reflective listening while also welcoming its use as ambiance. Enjoying this record while sipping wine and chatting over a meal is a perfectly reasonable demonstration of its functionality.
There’s something to be said, too, for embracing the “middlebrow”. One of the unexpected outcomes of the information revolution is that everything has become middlebrow. There no longer exists that pocket of privileged awareness once occupied by the suburban hipster of the late 20th century. Where the demonstrated appreciation of Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Ken Nordine, or some similar left-of-center artists once identified an individual’s taste as refined beyond the plebian mass, today’s mass communication network renders everything immediately accessible. One no longer needs curiosity and taste; rather, opposable thumbs will do.
Pianoworks is Eluvium’s most immediately accessible record to date, a welcoming and reflective collection of compositions that meets its listeners where they are yet is capable of taking them to unexpected mental places and moods.