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Music for Detuned Pianos

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  • Village Green
• 2020
7.7

The British composer works with multiple detuned pianos on this hauntingly elegant record of dreamlike miniatures. 

On Music for Detuned Pianos, the British composer Max de Wardener (best known for his work with and ) shows he is not one to take the easy path. The ten pieces on this wonderfully stubborn album are performed by jazz pianist Kit Downes on acoustic piano, an instrument that is notoriously disinclined to unorthodox tuning. The painstaking process resulted in two years of technical challenges and constant re-tuning.

De Wardener used four different types of detuned pianos, each detuning inspired by a different American composer, alongside those tuned to the conventional, equal-tempered scale. On two album highlights—“Doppelgänger” and “Deranged Landscape”— de Wardener tuned the same piano twice, in slightly different ways, then overlaid the recordings, emphasizing the music’s otherworldly feel. De Wardener later added a sprinkling of electronics—the synth washes on “Redshift,” the shade of distortion on “Color Cry”—to give body to the work without overwhelming the acoustic ambience.

Perhaps the best compliment you can pay this hauntingly elegant record is that it never feels like the product of back-breaking toil. After laborious preparation, many of the pieces themselves were recorded in single solo takes, with de Wardener leaving the piano space to weave its unfussy melodies in a way that is reminiscent of Erik Satie’s deathless Gymnopédies. There’s something enchantingly dreamlike about Music for Detuned Pianos, as if the music has been nudged from reality rather than torn from the here and now. “Blueshift,” for example, starts with a jaunty, nautical piano motif which slowly sags out of tune like vinyl left in the sun.

The shadow of hangs heavily over this album. Songs like “Foxtrot” and “Deranged Landscape” suggest the itchy horrors of Selected Ambient Works 2 rendered in echoing acoustics, the physical reality of the piano reinforcing the nature of the unease. “Bismuth Dream,” meanwhile, shares an air of unsettling melancholia with Aphex’s most straightforwardly beautiful piano piece, “Avril 14th.”

At times—notably the slightly dull opening halves of “Spell” and “Star Song”—Music for Detuned Pianos sails too close to convention. But the album partly draws its weight from these oppositions: Music for Detuned Pianos is classical but experimental; relaxing but unnerving; background music that demands your attention. In leaving these discrepancies unresolved, de Wardener and Downes have created an album of immediate impact and lasting emotional depth, a pleasing mess of contradictions that is as beautiful as it is misshapen.

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