Virtuosic Listening: Vicky Chow’s Aorta on New Amsterdam

Continuing down a path that she has been charting with aplomb these last several years (including in releases already covered by this publication), Brooklyn-based pianist and chamber musician Vicky Chow has been taking careful steps in not only performing contemporary works for piano and electronics but by establishing herself and her practice as a center of gravity to which new works of this expanding genre gather and germinate. In Aorta, her second album for New Amsterdam Records, we are treated to the sounds of the American avant-garde as crafted by an imaginative cadre of five composers united by Chow’s impulse to capture herself without restraint through her playing and to express deeper aspects of what unity entails, what she describes as “light, love, emotion and humanity.” Aorta is built of moving, clanging, daring resonances–and capture these very essences that she describes, it does.

There is an elaborate range and sensibility that is charted sonically. While there is a unifying aesthetic here, what is clear is that each piece approaches the piano’s aural augmentation with specific and well-informed intentions. The dream-like wanderings and impressionistic colors in Christopher Cerrone‘s Hoyt-Schermerhorn are elongated by borderline imperceptible reverb tails–except, that is, when they are fractured by the signal-level process which is driving them, which makes the sound begin to crumple under the weight of the piano’s tones as empty food wrappers would do under your paces as you traverse the piece’s namesake intersection in Brooklyn (where Michael Jackson’s BAD music video was filmed). Jacob Cooper‘s Clifton Gates, originally written for Timo Andres and inspired by John Adams’ Phrygian Gates (1978), uses literal audio gates to create a shifty and broken middle ground of delay chains and juxtapositions.

Vicky Chow

Vicky Chow

Polish composer Jakub Ciupiński‘s four part Morning Tale is a moody album leaf where tones and their digitally reversed duplicates appear and disappear in washes of distilled punctuations, each of the four possessing a distinct musical character and aim. Molly Joyce‘s 11 minute Rave begins deceptively antithetical to the title’s implications, but builds into first real peak experience of Aorta. This moment captures Chow’s breathless virtuosity complimented by a fascinating use of real-time overdub to insinuate (impossibly) many instances of this performer all at once simultaneously playing the gamut of the instrument, completing as though by metamorphosis, through its use of pedal tones, a transformation into a piano/organ hybrid.

The frenzy subsides and is followed by two selections from a piece also titled Aorta from French-born, American-trained composer Daniel Wohl. They explore contrasting approaches to the piano/electronics dichotomy: “Limbs,” where interlocking electronic elements are mapped over the complexity in Chow’s part, and “Bones,” where completely different musical segments/recordings are used in playback alongside Chow’s playing. They are effective diatonic exercises in the spurning of an idea, a thought, which ceases to waver. The final piece on the disc is Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho (written for both Vicki Ray and Vicky Chow), notably the only work which severs the piano from any electronic accompaniment; it is a prepared piano piece reminiscent of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948). In it, the piano is exploited inside and out, with a decidedly eastern focus in its rhythmic and timbral subtleties and overt gestures. As the longest piece on Aorta, its many palpitations and troughs serve as an exceptional finale.

On the inside of all of these forceful musical offerings is Canadian-born Vicky Chow; consummate pianist and collaborator; member of New Music Detroit and Bang on a Can All-Stars, among others; new music devotee; and advocate. She succeeds in attaining her aim of capturing an intimate and personal vibe: using the longest recording takes, riding the waves of each the pieces’ fault lines, abandoning the need for strict accuracy at all times. Aorta leaves a compelling imprint, especially once having exited the immersion from start to finish. Where Chow is exceedingly exceptional is indeed in her ability to listen and to gauge. The subtle variances in the electronic parts of these works presents a difficulty solo players rarely have to deal with: playing with/against themselves. At times, the external layers are so dense that it becomes clear that the real feat here is not virtuosic playing per se, but virtuosic listening. Chow’s ability to decipher where and when she needs to play, and to maintain in the face of competing/similar phrases and disjunctions of her own playing against itself is the marvel which Aorta captures, both subliminally and explicitly.

One disadvantage a curious listener may have regarding this otherwise extremely well-thought out and accessible release is the lack of documentation or, better yet—explication—of the processes used in the electronics for these works. It is one thing to be using an Ableton Live or Logic effect to achieve a certain result, quite another to achieve the same through Supercollider or ChucK. As far as how these various externalities are being generated, we are largely left in the dark. Nevertheless, soaking in the beautiful journey Vicky Chow has shared with us should bring many listeners coming back, as this is moving an intriguing music … played from the heart.