Ocus Pocus

The Art of Touching the Keyboard

Ocus Pocus

December 2004

Pianist Eve Egoyan cannot boast the world-wide fame of her brother, the great film maker… Atom Egoyan. Within the world of contemporary piano music, however, she is a star of the highest magnitude.

Her taste, discipline and musicality are so thoroughly evolved that she has been known to make believers of new-music sceptics. The problem is, of course, that most new-music sceptics manage to avoid her. That being the case, the major record companies have little interest in her and the lesser ones not much more. Hence this superb self-produced CD. (The CBC did issue an Egoyan recording of some music by Satie.)

The first thing Egoyan did right was to choose six pieces notable, not only for their advanced idioms and artistic integrity, but for their beauty as well in most cases.

Take the opening work, for example. José Evangelista’s Nuevas monodías españoles consists of twenty-one arrangements of traditional Spanish melodies and is entirely tonal. However, it employs no harmony and no counterpoint. Instead the composer explores, in his words, “a piano style where register changes and ornamentation predominate. The goal is to create the illusion that several voices simultaneously perform slight variations of the melody on different octaves.” You might imagine that twenty-three monophonic pieces lasting barely half a minute each would become monotonous. You would be right only in the sense that a string of pearls can be seen as monotonous.

Karen Tanaka’s Crystalline finds its beauty in the acoustical properties of the piano. She describes the music’s sound as a “cold, crystal sound sculpture,” and I might add that for me it evokes a walk across a frozen, starlit lake on a cold winter night.

The Art of Touching the Keyboard is more fascinating than beautiful, no doubt, but fascinating it is. It is “a single continuous movement (that) demonstrates the many ways in which the piano keys can be touched, from the gentlest of strokes to the most vicious of blows.”

Stephen Parkinson’s Trail is made up of twenty minutes of “the simplest of materials and the barest of textures,” as the composer puts it. It opens with a series of repeated g-b thirds that are repeated from time to time. The work is made up of short episodes, conceptually simple, if hardly conventional. The result is music that requires not so much the rapt attention of the listener as a relaxed hearing.

Per Nørgärd originally wrote Turn for the clavichord. It was one of the preliminary studies for his Third Symphony for choir and orchestra. Like the Tanaka, it relies heavily on the sonorities of the piano, but it is warmer music, “a declaration of love for the universal order,”according to commentator Karl Aage Rasmussen. If sheer, sensual beauty is what you’re after, this is where you’ll find it.

Corals of Valais, the concluding work on the CD, is largely made up of two-note intervals and single notes presented in an unvarying slow tempo with a rhythmic regularity so severe that it first fascinates, then irritates and finally liberates. It is a fitting conclusion to a liberating collection of contemporary music.

© 2004 Richard Todd