The great leap forward for the development of the piano was that, unlike its predecessor the harpsichord, the volume of an individual note could be controlled by the weight used to hit the key (the name itself comes from pianoforte, meaning soft/loud). The additional pedals meant that the overall sound could be softened or sustained. Obviously, innovations moved slower back then but within some fifty years of its invention, the versatility of this instrument began to be appreciated by composers who contributed a wealth of sonatas, concertos, duos, trios and more for the piano (although J.S. Bach wasn’t a fan).
The nature of the piano to produce soft, and sustained notes was recognised early on but perhaps the first lasting addition to the repertoire that took advantage of this was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata; a piece that has left its impression on generations of musicians and music lovers alike. It is a favourite for the soft classic radio stations; it’s also slow and simple enough for a modest player to attempt the first movement. As is the way with pieces that take on a life of their own, beyond the imagination of the composer, Beethoven was frustrated by the popularity. Nonetheless, the first did set the stage for composers to write slower, more contemplative works; indeed, when it comes to the piano nowadays, thanks to the more recent works of Erik Satie and John Cage, that’s pretty much what we expect.
Certainly, the piano as a physical item makes its presence felt on Occasus, the new album by Goldmund (Keith Kenniff’s project when he’s not being Helios). There are clicks from the keys, creaks from the wooden body, the occasional rattle of the pedals, all providing a warm presence to the music itself. You can, at times, feel the weight of history pressing down on the piano itself – this is not a new element to Goldmund’s work, The Malady of Elegance, utilised the piano’s noise as almost an additional instrument. Kenniff keeps his compositions brief and spare; the notes create a feeling rather than a tune, there is a sense of weightlessness in between each note struck. Goldmund plugs these gaps with atmospheric texture and occasional melody. It’s a very simple method of working but the result is profoundly moving; it’s a testament to his skill as a composer and producer that Occasus is a truly heart-wrenching listen.
It is perhaps the imperfections in the piano that are the key (no pun intended, for once); it’s a little flat at times and that lends itself to the sense that this instrument has been around a while; maybe it’s survived being in a school or church hall and has been rescued. Or perhaps it dates back further; maybe it was the source of entertainment in a bar, and people gathered round it every night to sing. It certainly doesn’t sound new, and Kenniff’s playing is not the flawless delivery of a fully-trained and practised recitalist – and that’s a good thing, the odd pause between notes just seems to give the piece gravity.
On the face of it, tremulous playing on a slightly wonky instrument with at times absurd levels of tape hiss shouldn’t work – and my description might mean you take an instant dislike to this record – but it does. There are a couple of moments that don’t work as well, such as “History” and “Thread” which are a bit too one-dimensional, but arguably that proves that the rest of it has a much more profound effect. Eight Goldmund albums in, and Keith Kenniff is still finding ways to move the listener: there is yet new life in this old instrument. (Jeremy Bye)