The Pitter-Patter of Pianos

Daniel Brandt, Hauschka, Paul Frick, Gregor Scwellenbach, Earl Sarp, John Kameel Farah — Steve Reich: Six Pianos & Terry Riley: Keyboard Study #1 (FILM, 2016)

reichriley600x600The storms smacking the Bay Area today turned out to be the perfect weather for Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos.”

I hadn’t heard the piece before. I just happened to spot the new recording — on a CD by Berlin label FILM, paired with Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Study #1” — in the front-page carousel on eMusic. I gave it a try, and the endless percussive rattling of pianos became a fitting accompaniment for the bright gray sky and the splattering of raindrops on the window.

Why buy this version of “Six Pianos” as opposed to an older one? Here’s one reason: It was a way to thank FILM for their web page, where they let you hear the six individual piano parts and bring them into and out of the mix. (It might work only on the Chrome browser, however.)

It’s an enlightening chance to hear the simpler “viola chair” parts that get hidden in the fabric. (That’s my attempt at a viola joke. Don’t take it seriously.) I would assume each piano gets a share of the intricate stuff eventually, but in the first several minutes, Paul Frick and Erol Sarp are definitely working on the simpler parts.

In concert, even the smaller parts probably take immense concentration amid the shimmering repetition of the piece. (See Einstein on My CD Player.) But for this recording, it turns out each pianist recorded his contribution separately at home.

riley-film-recordings“Six Pianos” felt right for a rainy day, but of course, our brains can twist music to fit whatever setting happens to be around. Sultry jazz ballads seem great for a snuggly winter day, but they also remind me of the heavy air of a summer afternoon. “Six Pianos” might represent the bustle of Manhattan streets, as Pitchfork suggests, but today, it’s about the rain showers outside and the quietude inside.

Having said that, not every piece of music can fit every mood. Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Study #1” is more frenetic to my ears, and it’s missing that clean shimmer that a Reich piece produces. It’s an impressive and fun piece –performed solo by Gregor Schwellenbach, presumably with overdubs — but it didn’t accompany the storm as well as “Six Pianos” did.

‘In C’ Gets an iPad App

That video above is a demo of the “In C” iPad app, which lets one person command a mini-ensemble through Terry Riley’s seminal piece, the composition that helped turn minimalism into a movement.

“In C” turns 50 this year, and to celebrate, sfSound ensemble leader Matt Ingalls teamed up with Professor Henry Warwick of Toronto’s Ryerson University to create this app.

I missed the app’s concert debut, which was the other night at The Uptown in Oakland. Warwick came out to the Bay Area, playing the app as his instrument in a larger ensemble that played “In C.” It’s all a little bit meta, isn’t it?

If you’re not familiar with “In C” … the composition consists of 53 composed phrases, all in the key of C, none of them very complex. More than one consists of whole notes, indicating a drone effect. What makes the piece is that the players move forward through the 53 phrases at their own speeds. They do stay in tempo, as I understand it, but they don’t have to stay synchronized. You want the overall ensemble to keep up — no one should be stuck on Phrase 2 if the rest of the group is on Phrase 17 — but you also want them to be playing different phrases.

The overall effect can be like a gentle showering of bells. It’s one huge major chord that’s splintered into snowflakes that land softly on your shoulders and hair and shoes. Alternatively, I’d imagine it could be a drone, or — in the hands of someone like Acid Mothers Temple, who recorded “In C’ along with companion pieces “In D” and “In E” — a blissful psych explosion that just keeps exploding.

And now you can do all that with just a couple of fingers and an iPad. The app appears to be free, so have at it.