Roger O'Donnell: Piano Formations

Roger O'Donnell's a man of many moods and colours. His 2006 album, The Truth In Me, was created entirely with a Moog Voyager, and though the instrument was once again used for the 2008 follow-up, Songs From The Silver Box, electronic beats were added. His latest collection, Piano Formations, signifies another change, this one obviously entailing an emphasis on acoustic piano rather than synthesizer. Things are not as simple as all that, however; the piano sounds heard on the recording aren't piano in the conventional sense, but rather digital samples he made of every note of an actual piano, and so what the listener hears is O'Donnell playing digital samples. As a result, he was able to move the piano outside of its normal environment and place it in different physical settings and record the album's pieces with the immediate sounds of the setting threading their way into the recordings. In O'Donnell's own words, “As the piano pieces happen inside my computer and not in the real world [and] as I use a piano sample not a real piano, I wanted to put them into [a] real world ambience. So I have recorded eight ambient spaces and put the piano in those spaces.” To personalize the project further, he thus incorporated into the pieces field recordings made by him, each of which has a powerful personal connection to his life.

While the new album certainly sounds different than the others, the working method he used to create the piano pieces isn't dramatically different from the approach he applied to the prior recordings. Having loaded a piano sound into Logic, he played a simple phrase, looped it, and then added layers until it was finished, a process very much like the one he used in creating the Moog-based pieces. The new recording isn't intended as a vehicle for O'Donnell to showcase virtuosic technical command either; instead, it's a model of restraint, with eight simple songs exemplifying piano minimalism at its prettiest.

Setting the album's tone, the melancholy opener “What's It Like There?” unfolds in slow and stately manner, with faint sounds of the outdoors (the piece recorded, in fact, outside the house where O'Donnell grew up) audible at the periphery. “I'll Never Visit” was recorded at the back of his garden in an apple orchard, which therefore allows one to hear amidst the piano playing the natural sounds of bird chirps and wind rustling through the trees. “Life is the Same Here” was likewise recorded in his garden, and this time one can hear flies buzzing and even a crow's cawing. Not all of the pieces were done outdoors. “Are You Sure?” was laid down inside the Tate Gallery (the old one, called Tate Britain) as an installation was going on, which helps explains the recurring sounds of footsteps; “Is It Raining There?” was recorded in the middle of St Paul's Cathedral in London, “We'll Stay” was recorded in O'Donnell's studio, and the closing “It's Where We Are Supposed To Be” incorporates the distant city sounds of East London overlooking the Thames and Canary Wharf. In truth, the field recordings dimension is not as big of a factor as it might appear when the various locations are noted in such detail. That's because they're far down in the mix, and audible via headphones but verging on subliminal, except in isolated instances, when heard on a regular system sans headphones—which is perfectly fine, as it turns out, because the focus consequently shifts to the piano playing, which in its subdued and pensive form is engaging when taken on its own understated terms.

Relaxing in his garden and watching the clouds roll by, O'Donnell realized that the way the clouds slowly changed matched the quiet change and development of the piano settings, and so created an additional component to the project by pairing each piano piece with a video of clouds. Certainly the DVD convincingly shows the glacial movements of the clouds acting as visual correlates to the piano playing. The clouds, which move so slowly they're like moving paintings, are a pretty enough sight to gaze upon, but one wonders whether a more fitting visual complement to the piano pieces would have been footage of the eight individual environments O'Donnell used as partial source material for the recording. Either way, the most satisfying way to experience the project is to do so sans visuals so that the music can work its quiet yet potent magic all by its lonesome.

January 2011