here would we be without John Cage? Had he never been born, his insights would be credited to a wide range of avante-garde composers (nothing stays undiscovered forever), but they wouldn’t be as relevant without his galvanizing personality and his bold music. Today, with Brisbane-based Erik Griswold, I’ll celebrate but one of his many contributions to music: the prepared piano.
The strings of a prepared piano are doctored with paper clips, rubber strips, nuts, bolts, and paper (other items can be added to the list—use your imagination) so that they produce new tones and timbres. The sound darts over the border between a percussion and string with each keystroke. The instrument’s range is startling: a prepared piano can sound like a harp, a detuned guitar, a rusty hammer on a rubber floor, a massive xylophone, or a normal piano if heard from underwater, with certain frequencies muted or encouraged.
Cage’s 1946 work Sonatas and Interludes best demonstrates the possibilities of the prepared piano. Nearly sixty years have passed since that work, but the instrument unfairly remains on the fringes of modern music.
Not if Erik Griswold has his way. He makes the prepared piano the center of Altona Sketches, an album is divided into seven pieces. The odd-numbered tracks are short interludes using music boxes and prepared toy pianos to situate his longer improvised works for prepared piano. Perhaps because of my pop-oriented background, I love the focus and accessibility of his shorter pieces. In them, Griswold develops a theme, plays with it briefly, and then lets it fade before it is completely exhausted. The pieces are short and sweet, tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, and they perfectly prepare the listener for the challenging music to come.
The longer pieces are hit or miss. At his best, Griswold plays masterfully, coaxing emotions and rhythms from the piano that I never thought possible—even with the aid of a few ragged nuts and bolts. “Friday” sees Griswold running urgently through a forest of deep bell-like tones. The ominous mood is augmented by a plaintive, squeaky note that sounds like a lost creature begging for help. Help arrives in the form of a gorgeous harp(iano) that rings clearly over the murky bed of deep bells. And all this in the first seven minutes. The remaining six don’t disappoint. The piece remains beautiful, but more importantly, cohesive and focused throughout.
At his worst, Griswold seems enamored with the sounds that a prepared piano can make. He ranges all over the keys, colliding new sounds with one another just to see what will happen. While I understand that this attitude of curiosity is essential to any good improviser, so is discipline. The ponderous seventeen-minute “Wednesday” illustrates the need for a balance between curiosity and discipline. In it, Griswold presents some good ideas, and he returns to them often (to me, a frank admission that he doubts the direction he’s taking), but the piece could be boiled down to a six-minute suite and lose nothing.
But I won’t let this review end on a bad note. It would be unfair to Mr. Griswold. Imagine what would have happened to an album of double-digit minute solo piano improvisations in the hands of one with lesser talent. At its worst, I never lost interest in Altona Sketches. I was merely frustrated because I know the heights that Mr. Griswold can reach.