Piano Works by Clarence Barlow

Hermann Kretzschmar et al (Cybele SACD 960.308)

14 November 2008 3 stars

Barlow This new release features piano and player piano music by the Indian-born European based composer Clarence Barlow, performed by Hermann Kretzschmar among others.

The most interesting work here – Çoğluotobüsişletmesi – is the reason most people will have for buying the release. And it doesn't really disappoint so long as you don't mind your music intense. Originally composed in 1978, the work is a relatively long (half an hour) experimental piano composition of dizzying complexity that has since its original composition undergone revision to make it more amenable to concert performance. The original version is in fact literally unplayable, with notes covering the full breadth of the register for sustained periods of time throughout. The only pianist to give it a go so far has been Herbert Henck, with Barlow also making a computer realisation at IRCAM. A human touch is preferable though, and the version of the work on this release is one dating from 2006 scored for four pianos.

The piece itself is very beautiful and of a depth not to be taken lightly, vastly polyphonic but in such a way as allows both consonance and dissonance passages of defining the cumulative sound. In the composition process Barlow incorporated data of acoustics and psychoacoustics to formulate an 'algebraic approach to consonance and dissonance' which he uses to control the overall intensity of the sound. (The Feedback Studios composers are known for their directing acoustics and psychoacoustics data towards composition.) There is a similarly considered approach to metre – certainly important in handling four simultaneous passages of music, each of them quite busy, which could therefore amount to an undefined mess. At first one or two of the pianists, then three or four, hammer out simple staccato figures of repeated notes, scale fragments and ostinati, a little out of synch with each other, all moving within the same tonal centre and taking place on different and concurrent 'planes', their cumulative effect something decentred and revolving, firing the motion and dynamic of the work as a whole, which keeps hold of its thread as it moves onward towards chaos.

One notable feature of the composition is its incorporation of just intonation in the retuning of four of the piano's keys (on each of the pianos). Once the piece really gets going, around halfway through, the sounds emanating outward are like a load of toy trains repeatedly running into each other. The cascade of notes sounds a bit like minimalism gone wrong or gone over to the wrong side of the tracks and mixed with free jazz. Which isn't to say it's bad: music should go wrong every now and again for the sake of its health. The similarity with minimalism is to do with the setting up and deployment of four processes running concurrently, all together adding up to one overall process, mechanical and monstrous. The similarity with free jazz is the result's aural resemblance to an ensemble of players all simultaneously playing separate solos, tonal or atonal. Çoğluotobüsişletmesi is refreshing to listen to, although the listener may perhaps only end up sitting through its barrage ('a most imposing sound picture' says Barlow) every now and then when they feel like confusing themselves.

The rest of the works on the release add up to a bit of a hodgepodge (excuse the expression). The opening work, Ludus Ragalis, is a sequence of thirteen preludes and fugues, pretty and austere and bland. The work's justification is that they are based on the character of Indian raags, which feature the same modes more or less as those of the western music tradition, but which are characterised more by melodic treatment, which will here make their raag character apparent to Indian-educated listeners and to others undistinguishable from a normal western fugue. Opening the CD with this boring exposition – one probably important to the composer in a personal way – is unfortunate, although the work is meant to bookend the release along with Çoğluotobüsişletmesi, which completely outweighs it.

Apart from that there are four works for player piano. The first of these, …or a cherish'd bard…, is the most interesting. It is built on a whole tone scale that begins by iterating simple intervals and gradually becomes more complicated as the piece goes on. The result is a pleasing confusion of notes appearing all over the keyboard in unexpected and disorderly fashion. The use of the means available in the player piano isn't gratuitous. The piece is a well crafted one and points to the undoubted compositional prowess of Barlow, but inevitably brings to mind Conlon Nancarrow, who has pretty much pre-inscribed his signature over this sort of thing. It finishes with whole-tone scales dragging themselves upwards across the whole keyboard, reminiscent in a way of Ligeti's Vertiges. The other player piano works are shorter and also reasonably pleasing.

This is a fair release although not astounding or life changing in a way you might naively hope for. Its character is well summed up in its packaging: safe and classic black and white, with a picture of the composer helming the piano on the front. If that's all you want from your music that's what you'll get (not a bad thing); its automatism is your own.

By Liam Cagney