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Andrew McPHERSON
Kinematics, for solo violin (2008) [8:59]
d’Amore, for viola and with magnetic resonator piano (2009) [11:38]
Secrets of Antikythera, for magnetic resonator piano (2009) [38:09]
Martin Schulz (violin)
Nadia Strota (viola)
Ryan MacEvoy McCullogh (piano)
rec. March and October 2011, Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York.
INNOVA 842 [60:50]

Andrew McPherson is an American composer, engineer and instrument designer who works in the University of London at the Centre for Digital Music. This program begins with the composer displaying considerable chops in the energetic and highly effective Kinematics, with violinist Martin Schulz making his instrument sound like two for a good deal of the time with some spectacularly facile double-stopping technique. Intensity and density of notes does not take away from the approachability of this exciting piece, with its sense of cadence and Paganini-like virtuosity.
 
The next piece, d’Amore introduces us to the magnetic resonator piano via the viola, its subtle sound initially acting like the sympathetically resonating strings of the viola d’amore after which it is named. The magnetic resonator piano is a hybrid acoustic-electronic instrument which extends the possibilities of the traditional grand piano. Sound is produced using electromagnetic actuators which directly manipulate the piano strings. This takes away the main percussive action of the piano, creating an entirely new world by creating infinite sustain, notes that crescendo from silence, harmonics, and new timbres. The keys of the piano also inevitably gain new functions through sensors which monitor the position of each key, capturing details such as pressure, release, pre-touch, after-touch, and other extended gestures. There is more about this on the composer’s own website, but the results are rich, strange and revolutionary indeed. I’ve heard performances using a little device called an ebow which can create extra sustain effects on piano strings, but the closest I’ve been able to get to these sorts of effects is monkeying about with the settings on a sampling keyboard or spending hours in digital editing chopping off the attack of pre-recorded piano sounds. This new approach to making a piano sing is terrific.
 
The piece d’Amore has its moments and the effects are interesting, but with the viola diving around and playing pretty much constantly this is something of an unequal duo. This does indeed carry out what the title intends, and the “exaggerated vocal style of playing” for the viola has its own expressive weight. Having played Secrets of Antikythera and returned to this piece in which the piano is ‘led by the hand’ of the lyrically deeper viola one increasing appreciates the strength of this idea, but even here you still take away more the feeling of an atmospheric chamber entered and left rather than a piece of music which has lifted you into new and inspired realms.
 
The main feature is Secrets of Antikythera. The title refers to the Antikythera Mechanism, a device discovered on an ancient shipwreck early in the 20th century, but whose remarkable complexities were discovered only decades later. With the opening of the piece the mechanical resonator piano emerges as a solo instrument in its own right, and the enigmatic tones and strangeness of its sonorities are well suited to the imaginative worlds generated by a unique object isolated by time, abandonment and loss. The piece moves through a clear development, the resonator effects combining and becoming secondary under the crystallisation of conventionally produced piano sounds. As with d’Amore you can’t help feeling that this music to a certain extent has an exploratory feel, and with Secrets of Antikythera we’re being given the potential of this instrument in doses of refinement with greater of lesser special effects. The music doesn’t actually do a great deal, though there is no shortage of incident and there are some stunning moments. It’s a question of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, with the clear climax of the longest penultimate movement, Vision Fulfilled, being invested with the greatest compositional content. There is however just too much eclectic meandering to allow the brain much space to move beyond the encountering of numerous notes. I longed to be released into realms of imaginative association, rather than those of ‘that sounds a bit like’…
 
Secrets of Antikythera is a superbly engineered and fascinating disc, and pianists, composers and the public should all be aware if this remarkable new development in the potential of the piano. Everything about these performances and pieces is admirable, and Kinematics is a stunning violin solo. I wish I could wax a little more lyrical about the actual music of the main act, but in sensing this is research in progress I have no doubt we will be hearing more from this quarter, and I will indeed be interested to see what arises out of such a fertile source.
 
Dominy Clements
 

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