Viv Corringham: Walking

Xenia Pestova: Shadow Piano

These recent Innova releases are dramatically different in concept and content yet both genuinely rewarding of one's time and attention. Each release is marked in distinctive ways, Corringham's Walking by the fundamentally idiosyncratic concept driving the project and Pestova's Shadow Piano by its incorporation of toy piano in addition to piano and electronics.

Xenia Pestova's a concert pianist with a difference, an uncompromising artist resolutely committed to bringing the music of living composers to life and who enthusiastically embraces the potential new technologies offer to her particular realm of activity. Shadow Piano is a generous seventy-minute recording featuring works (many of them written for Pestova) by Scott Wilson, Lou Bunk, Andrew Lewis, Derek Hurst, John Young, and Katharine Norman; five of the six long-form settings push past the ten-minute mark, and all are recent compositions, the earliest of them dating back to only 2007. They're all markedly different pieces, too, which is definitely one of the recording's strengths, and the alternation between piano- and toy piano-based settings also makes for an engaging recording sequence.

Scored for piano and computer, Wilson's “On the Impossibility of Reflection” literally explores the idea of reflection by using digital means to generate echoes of Pestova's playing, resulting in a hall-of-mirrors kind of effect when the originating patterns multiply into reverberant and occasionally dissonant spawn. Reflection isn't so much impossible as it is imperfect, given the computer's tendency to deviate from a simple mirroring pattern and add seemingly unscripted rejoinders of its own design as interjections. Bunk's “Being and Becoming” immediately distances itself from Wilson's piece in its use of toy piano, an instrument whose tinkling, almost percussive qualities makes it a natural partner for the electronic elements Bunk applies to a meditation of somewhat gamelan-like character. The piece's most ear-catching moments arrive during its closing minutes when the seeming scrape of a bowed instrument is heard alongside the rapid escalation of a background electronic pattern and the plunks of the toy piano.

An interesting concept animates Lewis's “Schattenklavier” (Shadow-piano) as well, with a fragment of the piano part from Stockhausen's Gruppen (1955-57) acting as a theme from which seven variations are generated. Each variation thus acts as a shadow of the original material, and the concept is further reinforced by computer treatments that complement the piano with a series of textural embellishments, some of them so subtle as to be subliminal and others (such as a phantasmagoric, orchestral-like swirl) so elaborate they challenge the piano for dominance. A shadowy character likewise haunts Young's brooding rumination “X,” which documents the interactions between piano and electroacoustic sounds and sees piano chords deconstructed and transformed into ghost-like shadings of liberally shape-shifting design. At album's end, Norman's “Fuga Interna (begin)” parts company from the other pieces in featuring a spoken word component whose text (the phrases typically echoing in the form of quieter repetitions) concerns the act of learning to play the piano (“She said, ‘Lift your finger, that's right…'”). The memory dimension of the piece is strengthened by the fact that all of the works within the “Fuga Interna” series (the one played by Pestova is the sixth) were inspired by Norman's experience playing Bach's “Fugue in B minor” from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Throughout the recording, Pestova impresses as a model of poise and control in never being derailed by the activity happening around her. The works are thoroughly modern pieces—experimental and not conventionally melodic, in other words—and no one should expect to come away from the recording whistling one of its tunes. It's nonetheless a thoroughly credible collection for those whose taste runs to contemporary piano-based composition.

Even more unconventional is Walking by New York-based Viv Corringham, which is less a recording of music than a polyphonic mosaic: assembled from the composer's tours of specific places, its seven hallucinatory settings feature the natural sounds of the locales sprinkled with the commentary of residents and the British sound artist's own wordless vocalizing. Corringham, a graduate of Middlesex University and the recipient of a certificate in Deep Listening from Pauline Oliveros, brings an interesting modus operandi to the project: she first takes a walk through a specific locale with an individual for whom the place has special meaning; as they walk, Corringham records the conversations and environmental sounds (though the conversations usually consist of the comments of her guest and an occasional interstitial sound from the composer) before taking the walk again, this time solo and improvising singing as she retraces the journey. What helps make the seven pieces on Walking (created between 2009-2013) so engaging is that they're set in different places throughout the world: a bar in Portugal, a market and library in Hong Kong, in East London beside the River Thames, by the polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, and so on.

It's a recording that calls out for a surround sound presentation so that its wealth of detail can be fully appreciated; in that regard, it makes sense that Corringham's work is often presented in a gallery setting where the distribution of sound within the space can be dealt with carefully. The listener's attention naturally gravitates to the speaking voices (two London-based artists, a Dutch poet, etc.), but alongside it a dense tapestry of constant stimulation appears—seagulls, water, wind, the clatter of bar noise, multi-layered vocal textures (sometimes reminiscent of Meredith Monk), and the everyday cacophony of shoppers and pedestrians traversing the eight miles of the Minneapolis skyway system. Complex webs of voices emerge, each participant taking its fleeting place at the forefront before another takes its place. The fifty-minute recording makes for a fascinating travelogue, not something one returns to for musical replenishment necessarily but to revisit the individuals and the places included therein. But no matter how one ultimately decides to characterize Walking, it inarguably offers a rich feast for the ears.

January 2014