After fifteen-years-plus writing about music — nine of those for Squid's Ear — I am sometimes stumped while trying to say something other than "this is good" with even the best work; really, it's easier to review something...less than stellar, as I know many more negative synonyms than positive. There are times where I think I've heard just about everything and the best version of everything, and that really bums me out.
When the jaded me reads "prepared piano," I mentally shudder and anticipate a "put some screws and rubber balls in there" pedantic, blasé approach that many incorporate into their keyboard work. But then I hear someone such as Magda Mayas who isn't merely extending what a piano (and clavinet / pianet) is capable of, but, even without electronic manipulation, transforming it into a new instrument with unexpected sonic possibilities. Along with a few others (i.e. Olivia Block), I would put her in the "Best Version of Prepared Piano." Anyway.
The opener of The Afterlife of Trees commences with a nervous clamor of wooden raps and seeming hand cranks with a gently oozing flow of high frequency slides, whirrs and shimmering harmonics hovering above courtesy of violinist Biliana Voutchkova (violin), Guilherme Rodrigues (cello) and Ernesto Rodrigues (viola); the visual inspired by the work is that of spirits slowly waking and released from a sarcophagus. The soundboard tapping and squeaky finger rubs continue as (Guilherme) Rodrigues mires the piece in a temperate drone. Over the course of the next twelve minutes, the quartet focuses more on reach than arrival. The members revel in the aforementioned gestures, largely eschewing pitch material in favor of raspy bowing, muted key thumps and clangs — and a claustrophobic dependence on one another's participation in the pending storm.
The motif of "The Multiplied Self" could be simply put as "rattling." Mayas snaps objects that wiggle, wobble and, uh, rattle (think door stop springs) to create brief resonant metallic swaths. The string trio answers with variances of rich and full to spidery and stunted to lilting to somber, like flickering appendages discharging pinches, plucks, trills, vibrato expressive, and glissandi.
Though mostly performing in a placid fashion, the group does band together into a series of enormous Minimalist / Spectral gusts on "Suddenly Forgotten." Starting with pointillistic blips and strums, the players lean into rugged, gnarled grinding and haphazard harmonics to create an unresolved tension.
This music charges me with optimism that there is still something interesting to be had in various experimental genres. Though not a wholly unique aesthetic, Voutchkova, Rodrigues, Rodrigues, and Mayas commit to intriguing explorations of their instruments to present inventive sound art. The Afterlife of Trees is a reason why I still write.
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