Is this a trend or a revolution? In the last two months, we’ve received 3-track EPs from pianists Francesco Berta, Levi Patel, Oskar Schuster & Cypix and Rael Jones & Peter Gregson, along with a collaboration between Bigo & Twigetti artists. Each EP contains strings, although only one provides title billing.
In light of their brevity, the diversity of these recordings is amazing. There’s the peaceful one, with shades of ‘Olafur Arnalds (Patel), the uplifting one, with a touch of post-rock (Berta), the playful one, often compared to Amélie (Schuster), the friendly, collaborative one (Bigo & Twigetti) and the filmic, driven one (Jones & Gregson). The field is wide open for composers who are willing to expand their boundaries past pedals and keys; these are some of the best.
Levi Patel ~ Of Sleep and Time
Last year, New Zealand’s Levi Patel was on vacation in an Auckland coastal town when he happened upon a beautiful piano in a private home. After being given permission to record, he composed a lovely trio of pieces for piano and strings. Of Sleep and Time is the result, graced by the souvenir sounds of the locale: shorebirds and a shimmer of rain. His stated intention: “to make it feel very intimate and introspective as if the listener is the only person in the room for the performance.” At this he succeeds. The wide open spaces of “As she passes” are gradually filled by the string trio, like footsteps in the sand. But on “A careful tearing”, Patel goes it alone; one can hear the hammers shift in the miked piano. This sets up the full finale, “The clear, empty night”, in which the stereo sounds surge. In the final thirty seconds, Patel lifts his hands from the keys and lets them take over, producing an unexpectedly powerful tonal shift. Patel hasn’t released an album yet, but he’s primed for it; prior works have included wordless female vocals, guitar, xylophone and even electronics, a la Rhian Sheehan. Such additions have nudged his work toward the ambient realm, but we think his strength is in the field of modern composition. The new EP may be a departure, but it’s a good path to follow.
Francesco Berta ~ The Last Days of Winter
The Last Days of Winter was actually released on one of the first days of winter (Christmas Day), but is finally coming into its own. The surprise is that Berta’s last album, the excellent Journey on Oxide Tones, was more of a modern composition/post-rock blend, with drums, bass and guitar, mostly played by Berta himself. The new EP still contains some electronic timbres, but by sloughing away the outer layers, it reveals a beautiful kernel within. There’s even an accompanying video, which plays with notions of time. “Memories” is the standout track, thanks to Aríanna Hönnudóttir’s cello and a celesta that sounds like a music box; it’s a perfect evocation of winter, with softly morphing temples and timbres. But the opening “Missing” is a brilliant setup, and the closing “Bright Star” makes for a spirit-lifting finale, along with 30 seconds of drums and guitars at the end. It’s all that one could want from an EP. The only oddity: a re-release with a two-minute bonus track, dubbed the “Digital Deluxe Edition”. We prefer the 3-track version, because “The Ordeal”, as solid as it is, just doesn’t fit in this set.
Oskar Schuster & Cypix ~ Caelum
Berlin’s Oskar Schuster released his first album, Dear Utopia, in 2011, and he’s been honing his sound ever since, drawing numerous comparisons to Yann Tiersen. We won’t disagree. The typewriters, cameras and other ephemera used in his work mark him as an especially playful composer. On Caelum, he enlists the aid of the a surprisingly young Washington electronic producer. Cypix may be only 15, but genius doesn’t wait. Two of the tracks are remixed from Schuster’s stellar 2014 album Sneeuwland, while the title track is original to this release. By deepening the reverb and surrounding the original tracks with light beats and other electronic adornment, Cypix turns “Sneeewland” and “Fjarlægur” from wistful to sparkling. The only clear omission: the original string finale of “Fjarlægur”, although it might have been difficult to incorporate in this format. The influence of Cypix is clearly felt on the title waltz, which includes the best use of woodpecker since Coldcut’s “Natural Rhythm.” The track hints at a new direction for Schuster; Caelum captures the exuberance of youth while underlining the deceptiveness of age. Schuster is far from old, but we suspect that he’ll always remember the beauties of innocence.
Rael Jones & Peter Gregson ~ The Watched Clock
We’ve featured Rael Jones on our site before, and since the 2013 release of Mandrake, his career has really taken off. The closing words of that review: “It’s time for a promotion; this composer should be in charge.” After years of composing and editing for TV and film, he is. Jones has recently completed the score for the upcoming film Suite Française, in which a piano is a major player (Sony Classical, 16 March); Peter Gregson’s score is featured in A Little Chaos, which debuted in Toronto in September. Could these scores end up as nominees for major awards? On the basis of what we’ve heard from each composer, we suspect (and hope) so. The Watched Clock is the EP these two friends made “for the joy of it.” More than any of the other EPs in this article, it seems suited to the silver screen. The title track provides a deceptively simple setup, as Jones’ measured tones are balanced by slow draws of the bow. But “Circular Argument” sounds like film noir: a rainy night, a tilted hat, a revolver in the gloved hand of a femme fatale. The piano notes descend in a downpour; the dark cello approaches like fate. Drums ratchet the drama to nearly-unbearable levels. And then, all is still: the somber tones and miked keys of “Big Sky” provide a satisfying conclusion. (30 March)
Various Artists ~ Forty-Eight
Finally we arrive at the fullest orchestrated of these EPs, based on a self-imposed challenge: to compose, perform and record an EP in 48 hours. Under the guidance of Bigo & Twigetti label founder Jim Perkins, The Forty-Eight sextet not only accomplishes its stated goal, but its unstated goal: that the music will actually be good. There’s no inkling of rush involved in these pieces, which seem well-planned and patiently performed. The only draft aspect is the choice of titles: “eb 116 3:40am” is not likely to stick in the mind. The opening piece comes across as a spring flurry, with sailing ivories anchored by low cello tones. But the heart of the EP is the center cut, “D 92 8:50pm”, featuring the wordless operatic vocals of Red Gray. The track reaches for the stratosphere, note by joyful note, until the heavens seem ready to relinquish a burst of light in reply. A deeper voice becomes apparent toward the end, continuing the conversation between heaven and earth. Like the other tracks, this piece rests gently on a bed of piano and strings, but glitch and wandering synth expand the tonal range. The inherent talent of the roster is clear, and after hearing Forty Eight, one grows interested in the label’s back catalog; last year’s Winter and Spring samplers are a great place to begin. (23 March; early release on Bandcamp)