Andrew McPherson: Secrets Of Antikythera

The obvious hook for Andrew McPherson's Secrets Of Antikythera is the presence of his own invention, the magnetic resonator piano, alongside the contributions of violinist Martin Shultz, violist Nadia Sirota, and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough. As described in the CD sleeve, McPherson's device is “an electronically augmented acoustic grand piano that uses electromagnets to elicit new sounds from the piano strings” (imagine 88 electromagnets suspended above the strings). It thus makes perfect sense that McPherson, currently working in the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London, should be described as not only a composer but an engineer and instrument designer, too.

Secrets Of Antikythera opens with a high-energy setting for solo violin, “Kinematics,” that, while rendered by Shultz (for whom it was written) with conviction, bravura technique, and a no small amount of passion, wouldn't sound out of place on a programme of otherwise standard repertory pieces. It's with the advent of the second setting that the recording's unusual character starts to emerge, with Sirota's dreamily assured viola playing on “d'Amore” (named for the baroque instrument viola d'amore and composed for Sirota) augmented by the wispy tonal harmonics generated by the magnetic resonator piano.

The bulk of the recording (almost two-thirds of it) is given over to the title suite, which thus offers the most complete account of what the magnetic resonator piano is capable of contributing to a given piece (the work's title, incidentally, refers to an ancient device used for calculating astronomical positions that was discovered aboard the sunken wreck of an Ancient Greek ship in the early part of the twentieth century). In the opening part (“I. Prologue: Mystery”), the instrument—the only sound featured in this first section—sounds like a church organ more than anything else; when McCullough enters in “II. Conception,” the vivid contrast between the unaltered piano and its rather ghostly counterpart comes strikingly to the fore. Within the second movement, a melodic idea germinates that is expanded upon in the parts that follow before culminating in “VIII. Vision Fulfilled,” which finds the electronics wholly stripped away and McCullough ruminating solo in all his virtuosic glory for ten-plus minutes, and then exiting in “IX. Epilogue: Ruins,” with the pianist and magnetic resonator piano reunited a final time.

While, on the one hand, it makes sense (from a marketing perspective, at the very least) to draw attention to McPherson's invention, it also would be wrong to emphasize it too much, as Secrets Of Antikythera is ultimately less about an innovative sound treatment than it is about the three compositions featured on the recording. They are—or at least should be—the release's true drawing card.

April 2013