Vicky Chow: A O R T A
New Amsterdam Records

A O R T A is clearly a deeply personal album for Brooklyn-based pianist Vicky Chow; that it is so is intimated by the choice of title and cover illustration, both of which allude to musical material that comes directly from her heart, even if the six selections were composed by others, specifically Andy Akiho, Christopher Cerrone, Jakub Ciupinski, Jacob Cooper, Molly Joyce, and Daniel Wohl. It's telling, however, that none are strangers with whom Chow has only a professional relationship; all are longtime friends and collaborators of the Bang on a Can All-Star.

Yet as important as that detail is, it isn't the most compelling thing about her sophomore solo release: what stands out more than anything is how seamlessly she integrates acoustic piano and electronics on the hour-long recording. Trite effects and superficial add-ons are absent; instead, the two elements fuse so naturally and in such genuine service to the compositional material that awareness of the instrumentation and production approach quickly recedes and the focus shifts, as it should, to the music.

Cerrone conceived of his “Hoyt-Schermerhorn” as a tribute to the New York nightscape, and if he's to be taken at his word, he must have been feeling nostalgic and reflective about the locale while composing the material. Whereas another artist might have opted for something brash and high-intensity in the choice of opener, Chow to her credit chose something very much in keeping with the nuanced tone of the album, with Cerrone's haunting, late-night setting alternating fluidly between peaceful and unsettling passages for eight entrancing minutes.

Like Cerrone, Cooper titled his piece with NY in mind, in this case “Clifton Gates” named for the Brooklyn place where it was composed while also referencing John Adams's “Phrygian Gates” to which it pays homage. As happens multiple times on the album, Cooper's piece highlights how deftly Chow integrates electronic treatments into her playing, in this case using audio gates to transform the piano into chiming patterns that gradually accumulate in density. Wohl's two contributions are consistent with the largely understated tone of the recording, “Limbs” an elegant, delicate reverie and “Bones” a rhythmically robust rendering that merges Chow playing in real time with a second recording of the piano. On purely sonic grounds, the album's most haunting piece is arguably Ciupinski's four-movement setting “Morning Tale” for the way in which electronics arc alongside the piano like a glissando shadow. Of its four parts, it's the last, “The Miracle of Being Ernest,” that most overtly references the Reich-styled minimalism tradition out of which the composers featured on A O R T A developed.

The concluding piece,“Vick(i/y),” is the only one that eschews electronics, Chow instead playing prepared piano on a fifteen-minute setting Akiho wrote and named for Vick(y) Chow and pianist Vick(i) Ray. Undoubtedly it's the most ear-catching of the six works presented, given the degree to which the prepared piano is able to simulate a miniature percussion ensemble. Yet while one's attention is initially struck by its unusual blending of bell-like tones and conventional notes, “Vick(i/y)” ultimately proves to be as haunting in its melodic content as Ciupinski's. Regardless of the particular treatments involved, one comes away from A O R T A impressed by the sensitivity of Chow's playing and how much she honours the composers with her nuanced handling of their works.

December 2016