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116 & Rising
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Absent Without Leave
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Barbara Lüneburg

Seth Horvitz: Eight Studies for Automatic Piano

With Eight Studies for Automatic Piano, Seth Horvitz presents the next chapter in a highly personalized and idiosyncratic musical journey. One could probably list on one hand the number of individuals who've first established themselves with a series of innovative electronic music releases (as Horvitz has done under the Sutekh alias) and managed a label (Context, in this case) and then enhanced their musical credentials with a return to higher education and a more formal study of musical composition (a recent MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College, which Horvitz added to the Bachelor's degree in Cognitive Science he earned from UC Berkeley in 1995). In this particular case, Eight Studies for Automatic Piano is the project Horvitz produced for completion of his MA degree at Mill's College.

The recording itself, which was made during April 2010 at Mill's College, is performed entirely by the Yamaha Disklavier C7 Mark III, in essence a computer-controlled player piano. In many ways the project is like a contemporary update on Conlon Nancarrow's (1912-1997) infamous player piano compositions, whose technical demands often exceeded the performative abilities of the human pianist (hence the decision to produce the works for player piano). However disconcerting it might be to assume the role of spectator witnessing Horvitz's pieces being presented in the concert hall (given that no human player is involved), no such discomfort arises for obvious reasons when the recording plays in one's living room.

The eight pieces fall within four categories: Idealized Symmetrical Form, Constructed Binary Form (wherein “a basic, repeating shape is introduced and systematically layered, transposed, and rhythmically offset against itself”), Intuitive Linear Form (“intuitively generated elements are introduced linearly, above a steady pulse”), and Intuitive Transformational Form (“systematic transformations of a basic, repeating shape are applied intuitively, sometimes haphazardly”). Two of the recording's pieces are symmetrical in design, with “Study No. 14: Arch Study for the Highest Eight Notes,” for example, proceeding in reverse when it reaches its midpoint and thereafter mirroring the first half—an effect obscured by the insistent pulsing patterns of the keyboard's uppermost eight notes, which, while steady, pulse at differing rates, though the symmmetrical character is clearly audible in the gradual acceleration with which the piece begins and the eventual deceleration with which it ends. Also symmetrical is “Study No. 4: Sixteen Diatonic Glissandi Moving at Harmonic Rates,” a short piece inspired by an instrument called the “Rhythmicon” (conceived by Henry Cowell in the late 1920s and built by Leon Theremin in 1931) and James Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow (1974), but again that formal design is camouflaged by what presents itself as a dense flurry of multi-directional cascades and runs.

Though influenced by György Ligeti, “Study No. 13: Echoes” might remind certain listeners of Lennie Tristano's solo piano studies in the piece's rhythmically steady waterfalls of sixteenth notes. In “Study No. 21: Bells,” the unwavering repetition of an upper note gives the piece a pensive quality, and the relatively uncluttered design offers a welcome respite from the recording's denser pieces. “Study No. 1: Octaves, Systematically Filled and Folded,” on the other hand, is a roller-coaster ride of ascending and descending octaves that gradually begins to resemble an experimental electronic piece as its patterns meld into one another until an unexpectedly bluesy episode emerges near track's end. “Study No. 99: Strumming Machine” (the title a nod to Charlemagne Palestine's 1974 Strumming Music) likewise unspools at a high velocity, spurred on by a twelve-note arpeggio that motorikally pulses at a rate of ten notes per second. In addition to a gradual increase in tempo, there's an accompanying depression of the pedal, and as such the clear definitions of the notes grows ever blurrier as the minutes tick by.

Each piece is composed in accordance with methodically worked-out formal principles, the technical details of which Horvitz has provided in comprehensive detail, not only in text form but graphical too. This makes the project a fascinating object of study, though it must needs be said that the listener, if so inclined, can just as easily disregard the accompanying material and experience the pieces as exercises in pure sound, even if in doing so a diminished awareness for the formal complexity of the project may result. Horvitz provides an exhaustive account of the developments occurring within “Study No. 2: An Approximate Series of Approximate Harmonic Series,” for instance, which makes it fairly easy for the listener to follow as the music plays, but one can also choose to simply hear it as a multi-layered exploration of ascending and descending patterns and tempo contrasts.

August 2011