north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews


Written by Alan Cooper

reproduced with permission

Pianocircus: sound festival 2009 opening concert

Professor Pete Stollery welcomed guests to the opening event of the sound Festival 2009 before we descended into the main Ballroom to hear the opening concert given by pianocircus, an astonishing ensemble of keyboard virtuosi who first got together in 1989 to perform Steve Reich's Six Pianos. As well as providing a spectacular launch for the fifth annual Sound Festival, this concert marked the start of a six-month music education collaboration between sound, pianocircus and four North East secondary schools, Banchory Academy, Harlaw Academy and Nairn and Fortrose Academies.

Even before the music started, the spectacle of the six players seated in a circle at their electronic piano keyboards, their faces the embodiment of the most profound concentration, suggested to me that at any moment they might pound out the combination that would open up a Stargate behind them.

Their first piece entitled Groove Study Mega Mix (2005) by the Japanese born singer, pianist and composer now based in London, Yumi Hara Cawkwell revealed at once the level of concentration required to perform this music. In addition to the most refined keyboard skills, these performers needed the rhythmic and counting skills of the most advanced percussion players. It was the piano as a percussion instrument that was strongly to the fore in this first piece. I was reminded of gamelan, of hocquetage, the musical technique used by the players of Andean pipes where music is built up into a consistent line from the dissociated notes of single players and even of fractal geometry where a simple repeated line can develop into the most complex and beautiful patterns. To begin with the sounds seemed to build into something suggesting Aram Khachaturian's Sabre Dance but it went on to develop a much wider range of rhythmic and sonic textures. The look of concentration on the faces of the players grew more and more intense.

Colin Riley's Recast with live electronics took us into a different realm entirely. Although there was a Scherzo-like percussive central section to this piece, the keyboards used sustain to mesh their sounds perfectly with the luscious softness of the electronic background created by composer/performer Paul Fretwell. This beautiful piece was the perfect foil to Yumi Hara's more frenetic rhythmic imaginings.

As the performance progressed, I was more and more amazed by the breadth of imagination with which the different composers had faced up to the challenge of creating music for six pianos. Lynne Plowman's Hall of Mirrors (2007) was the first piece to inject an idea of humour into her composition. She had created a kind of constantly merging collage of different piano styles from Rachmaninov and Chopin to Liberace and ragtime and so much more besides. It culminated in a lengthier lounge piano quotation from Jerome Kern's Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. It was interesting that the phalanx of younger school pupils sitting in front of me suddenly sat up, smiled at one another and became quite animated on hearing this music.

Before coming to the concert and not being sure of what to expect, what I had imagined was probably closest to what we got in the second half of the concert with the Trilogy, Log, Line, Loud by Graham Fitkin. His post minimalist approach with its pounding jazzy rhythms used the six pianos as an orchestra. It was here that I began to notice another great skill used by the performers where the different players would use strongly contrasting styles of attack ranging from stridently percussive to quite soft thus giving each piano the opportunity to stand out as a discrete musical entity within Fitkin's "piano orchestra". I think this was the piece that really connected with the younger members of the audience. One young lad looked as if he was about to take off and fly to the ceiling, the rhythms of the music excited him so much. This is what the Sound Festival is all about, reminding the jaded old stagers like me that there are still a lot of eye-popping surprises to be had from the world of music or just giving the youngsters a good time.

  • Published on 28 October 2009
  • Written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with kind permission of the author.

events mentioned
  Date Day Time Location Event Details

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28Wed 7.30 pmAberdeenpianocircus