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Piano in the store of art

2021-10-28

Amongst Young Poland landscape and portraits of women, in front of the whiteness of filigree sculptures in the middle of the room, it stands – big and black as it should be. The stifled pathos of the last piece by Franz Liszt turns almost inadvertently into the stuffy minimalism of György Ligeti. These are two prologues lasting a few minutes to the culmination of the programme of Reinhold Friedl’s recital: the first performances of a piece by his friend Zbigniew Karkowski. After almost half an hour of struggle between noise and harmony, the time comes for final quietness in Terre Thaemlitz’s minimalism. Is this really the end, can we take a breath? Is this how Post Scriptum for Sacrum Profanum sounds?

‘What a place, what a time,’ I thought when heading for the National Museum in Krakow through the empty square. Only a few days earlier, in the same city, the piano had been on fire in Anne Lockwood’s performanceat the Unsound Festival. Friedl’s concert took place simultaneously with the final session of the jury of the Chopin Competition, and the Internet buzzed with speculations who and why. Can you imagine keeping playing the piano between these extremes and how? And, in addition, I spent the last week immersed in Harry Partch’s music, the natural tune of which is situated on the antipodes of even temperament impersonated by this instrument. The venue of the concert also seemed paradoxical to me: the recently opened gallery of 20th and 21st century Polish art on the second floor of the museum. The room is at the intersection of corridors, there are less or more realistic landscapes in the background and four small sculptures on pedestals behind the piano, including Mrs. Sturday on a Bench with a Dog by Ludwik Puget. On the left, beside the audience, there are three portraits of women, including the popular red-headed Woman Combing Her Hair by Władysław Ślewiński. Reinhold Friedl – a master of total, prepared and amplified piano – appears to be very restrained in this company.

But the whole carefully thought-out programme of the concert can also be regarded as an exercise in restraint and the overcoming of dualisms. Unstern! Sinistre, disastro is one of the last pieces by Liszt – initially full of repeated dissonant chords and the whole-tone scale, in the spirit of the gloomy title.The second part brings some relief with a change of tone and the sostenuto (sustaining). The dense chords, the parallel octaves and the articulatory quasi organo introduce an eschatological dimension, which is present also in La lugubre gondola composed in the same period. Going beyond tonality and modern until today, the musical language of these pieces makes them popular also among pianists specialising in contemporary music, such as Pierre-Laurent Aimard in his The Liszt Project.

The combination of Liszt and Ligeti was discovered by phonography a long time ago using the ordinary nationality passe-partout, sometimes also with a similar concept of virtuosity discovered apart from the obvious Hungarian character (as Gábor Csalog in Transcendental Études). But this time Friedl focuses on something else: the close relationship between moods and emotions. In Liszt’s works, it is pesante and marcato – heavily, rhythmically, forcefully; in Ligeti’s works: mesto, rigido e ceremoniale – melancholically, rigidly, solemnly. Musica ricercata dates back to the early neoclassical period in the career of the subsequent avant-gardist, but it is governed by very interesting reductionist formal constraint.  The first of the eleven etudes uses only two sounds from the chromatic scale and each successive etude adds one more sound. Once chosen by Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut and now by Friedl for his recital, the second part of the cycle contains only E, F-sharp and G-sharp notes. However, this limitation makes the performance even more dramatic: after oscillations in seconds, the entrance of G-sharp accelerated to the limit sounded like an electric shock. It is worth adding that, apart from the intriguing use of pauses and the rhetoric of question and answers, the German pianist accented also the similarity of tone colour between two Hungarian pieces, which can be heard, for example, in a string of slowly progressing octaves in high registers.

All of this, however, was only a build-up to the flood of sounds for which the whole audience gathered between the paintings had politely been waiting and which had been preceded by a delicate smile of the main author. At times, the flood sounded like an accelerated and condensed Liszt interspersed with a slow extended Ligeti. This is because Zbigniew Karkowski uses maximum contrasts in his piano composition Execution of Intelligence. Cascades of syncope-repeated tone clusters, sometimes sounding like a wet dream of the creators of black MIDI, are interspersed here with quiet interludes of apparently simple textures in the spirit of Morton Feldman. Everything, however, begins with a rhythm masked with pauses and a resonance that, to my surprise, slightly resembles the first of Two Études by Paweł Szymański  (although it is obviously less tonal).What articulation marks may be hidden in this score?

As Reinhold Friedl told and showed me, Karkowski’s piece is written very precisely, allowing him only to select the pace in slow episodes, with an annotation: ‘as long as possible’. In fast and violent episodes, the pianist is restrained only by physical constraints in the span of hands on the keyboard, which reminds me of Brian Ferneyhough’s approach relying on the energy released by the performer in completing extremely difficult passages in the aesthetics of new complexity. Passages between the two elements – the slowly flowing harmony parts and the falling noises – were often unexpected, even at the end of Execution of Intelligence. Maybe this is what the title refers to: to the invalidation of preaudibility of any kind, the rationally comprehensible arrangement of the piece?  The quantity and diversity of information orders makes it impossible to become ready for the sudden condensation of the narration and makes it difficult to listen intently to the dispersed matter when our ears still cannot shake off all those thumps, which were also reinforced by the specific acoustics of the museum with many corridors running deep inside. Although the piece bears the same title as the noise composition featured in Sub Rosa’s popular anthology  Noise and Electronic Music, it seems to have little in common with the latter. It also remains one of the few purely instrumental pieces in Zbigniew Karkowski’s catalogue, waiting for a convenient opportunity to be performed for nearly two decades. Its moment came only on that occasion, in spite of Reinhold Friedl’s excellent collaboration with the Krakow festival. Between the Chopin festival and the radicalism of flames. Karkowski would have had a good laugh.

However, the abrupt ending of Execution of Intelligence is not the end of the evening with Friedl. The suspense drops in a curve to the peculiar Ten-Thirty by Terre Thaemlitz. This transsexual house and ambient music veteran has performed and recorded also piano music for decades – for instance, the Rubato series, in which she reinterpreted songs by Kraftwerk, Gary Numan and DEVO. Do I have to add that the zeitkratzer ensemble led by Friedl recorded an album devoted to Thaemlitz as well as to Kraftwerk and Karkowski? The score of this piece exists not in the form of notes, but the recording that the pianist plays on headphones and imitates live. A specific audio score, seeming to be a tribute to the tradition of oral imitation. Each version is different, because the performer can contribute a lot and create another variant and improvisation. As the pianist wrote to me in his e-mail, he added a sonoristic counterpoint opening new spaces to the part played on the keyboard – mainly on white keys, in consonances of fifths and fourths. It is Friedl in his element, inside his piano, conjuring tinkling glissandos by means of an ordinary glass. Again, as in Liszt’s and Karkowski's works, dualism returns here between discreet heights of keys and continuous string gauges. Or maybe it is no longer dualism, but continuity – the idea of trance that is so significant to Thaemlitz? Everything happens here in quiet dynamics and in the ambient mood, until rubbed strings fade out, giving way to decreasingly rare strokes. The woman combing her hair still does this, Mrs. Sturday combs her dog on the bench.

Jan Topolski

This text was written in co-operation with the Kraków Festival Office as a postscript to podcasts accompanying the Sacrum Profanum 2021: Maturity festival.

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