Performed by duo runedako members Ruth Neville and Daniel Koppelman in various permutations—either the two together or Koppelman or Neville alone—Recombinant Nocturnes is a piano album in the most complete sense. Encompassing in mood, the pianists' hour-long rendering of composer Benjamin Broening's work variously recalls Brahms, Schubert, Debussy, Messian, Bartok, and even Schoenberg as it makes its way through thirteen pieces, eight of them so-called fragments. Don't get the wrong idea: the work is no mere pastiche, but rather a thoroughly modern work that's simply grown out of a long-established tradition it's comfortable acknowledging. What makes it especially engrossing is that its thirteen pieces draw from a shared pool of melodic motifs and rhythmic gestures but recombines its elements in startling manner. A few notes on the participants: born in Paris in 1967, Broening has established a reputation as a composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music; Neville is currently a faculty member at Furman University in South Carolina, where she teaches piano and music theory; and Koppelman's current interests include manipulating the natural sound of the acoustic piano using softwares such as Max/MSP and Ableton Live.
Sometimes pensive and reflective, at other times agitated and aggressive, the carefully measured unfolding “Double Nocturne” evokes in equal measure both Debussy (Children's Corner, say) and Messiaen. Its position as the starting piece makes sense, given that it superimposes the pitches and rhythms that appear in each of the two pieces for solo piano and electronics heard later (“Nocturne/Doubles” and “Third Nocturne”). There's a sense in which the entire recording is encapsulated by the ten-minute setting—which isn't to suggest that what follows isn't without purpose. Interspersed amongst the five formal pieces are eight aphoristic explorations for solo piano that ruminate on fragments drawn from the work's larger settings, whether it be relatively gently (“Nocturne Fragments: Remote”) or ponderous (“Nocturne Fragments: Eternal”). The shared similarities between the fragments are rendered less conspicuous by their being separated from one another, and consequently one might miss the fact that the exact same pitches and rhythms are used in “Nocturne Fragments: Flexible, mysterious, resonant” and “Nocturne Fragments: Aggressive, bright, eventually giving way,” even if the two pieces are differentiated by contrasts of dynamics and tempo. “Nocturne Fragments: Tenderly (i)” and “Nocturne Fragments: Tenderly (ii)” also share the same score, the difference in this case being that the melodic line shared by both is played conventionally in the first and with fingers muting piano strings in the second.
The addition of electronics immediately sets “Nocturne/Doubles” (performed by Neville) apart from the piano-only settings, though the former are used sparingly, more as textural enhancement and a complement to the piano playing. Composed in 2002, “Nocturne/Doubles” is the recording's oldest piece and is the seed from which the others sprung—something explicitly revealed in the way the originating piece's contents re-emerge in the other settings. If anything, the electronic components are integrated even more inconspicuously into “Third Nocturne,” as they're largely deployed as timbral extensions of the piano's notes and act much like reverberant echoes bleeding into silence. Subtle too is the album's closing piece, “Night Falls (Nocturne Loops),” where four overdubbed pianos trace the same chord progression from a high register to low, though with each using a slightly different rhythmic pattern. It's a fitting end to the album in its being so fundamentally musical in character; it also implicitly emphasizes that, in the larger sense, Broening's project succeeds more than anything else for the seeming ease with which it achieves a deft balance between experimentation and listenability.