In a career stretching back to the mid-90s, Vanessa Wagner has performed and released music by an impressively diverse roster of composers including Mozart, Lizst and Scriabin. More recently she’s been exploring minimalism in all its forms in a series of albums on the infiné imprint. This is the third album in the series, the first being a collaboration with Mexican electronic musician Murcof, in which the musicians rework pieces by Satie, Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, the latter two being purely solo works.
Defining minimalism in music is less easy than it sounds: it can refer to a simple-sounding musical aesthetic, but it can also refer to a music that focuses on the interplay between overlapping rhythmic patterns (so-called phase music), or indeed to process music, in which the composer defines certain features but invites the performer to shape the music, allowing them to make their own structural choices. This album is a lengthy and gloriously contradictory overview of the genre, switching with ease between Nico Muhly’s maximalist, virtuosic, harmonically adventurous “Etude No. 3” to the pure consonance of Ezio Bosso’s intimate and melancholy “Before 6”. The choice of composers is indicative of Wagner’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, both its roots and its contemporary practitioners. Early minimalist pioneer Moondog’s Bachian “Prelude No. 1 in A minor” features, as does “Celeste” from Brian and Roger Eno’s 2020 Mixing Colours album. There’s also music from not one but two winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music: Julia Wolfe and Caroline Shaw. In Wolfe’s brief “Earring”, jangles in the high registers accompany a gently melancholy melody. Shaw’s lengthy piece “Gustave Le Grey”, which sits right at the centre of the album, quotes Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17. Philip Glass appears twice, the only composer to do so.
Right from the opening track, Susanne Ciani’s sparkling cascade “Rain”, Wagner’s apparently effortless pianism shines through. She’s a virtuoso pianist, but she’s also got an exquisite touch and sense of timing, something that becomes very clear in subsequent tracks, particularly in The National’s Bryce Dessner’s wonderful “Lullaby (Song for Octave)”. The piece revolves around a reiterated triplet ostinato in counterpoint with a melody written in a complex of other rhythmic subdivisions, and Wagner is rhythmically precise whilst flexible with tempo, a challenging balancing act that she pulls off with such aplomb as to make it sound simple (it’s not!) Similar rhythmic brilliance is demonstrated in David Lang’s “Spartan Arcs”, with its pulse shifting constantly between groups of four, five and six sixteenth notes.
As with any album that seeks to provide an overview, not all pieces will appeal to all tastes but—with the notable exception of Caroline Shaw’s thirteen and a half minute epic—most are over not long after they begin. I particularly enjoyed “Wise Words” by Timo Andres as well as the aforementioned “Lullaby (Song for Octave” by Bryce Dessner: your experience may vary. In any case, as a serious and wide-ranging exploration of minimalism at the piano, performed by an extraordinary pianist, A Study of the Invisible is an album that is well worth exploring. (Garreth Brooke)