Zero, Minimal Music for 2 Pianos by Jeroen Elfferich (Arabesque)

First, if you’ll allow a brief diversion before I begin this review, I must say it is good to be back writing for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. I was a contributing editor from 2012-2014, and I’m grateful that our new Editor-in-Chief, Amanda Cook, has invited me back into the fold. I was, like many, saddened to see Thomas Deneuville step away from this incredible project, which is so vital for our community, and I wish him and his beautiful family all the best as we try to continue the work he began.

When Amanda Cook reached out to me for my first review back with ICIYL, she tempted me with an album of minimal two-piano music by Dutch composer Jeroen Elfferich. Always anxious to discover new works in the style I call home, I quickly agreed. The brief samples of Zero that I listened to were intriguing, and I was anxious to get back into writing. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that I was struggling to connect with the music. I hoped that my initial reaction was incorrect, that as I got further into the disc I would grow to like it more, but such proved not to be the case.

To properly explain my difficulties with this album, I need to discuss first different modes of listening to minimal music. With many minimalist compositions, the listening tends to be focused on discovering elements of the music that lie beyond the surface. That is, surface-level activity or change is reduced to allow other aspects to come to the fore. That may concern the nature of the sounds themselves, such as exploring overtones or other acoustic phenomena, or it may be about teasing apart resultant patterns à la Piano Phase.

When listening to music that is described as postminimalist, however, the music tends to guide the listener more directly, perhaps through harmonic shifts or melodic material. Much of this music retains characteristics of minimalist music, but the listening experience is rather different. Obviously this is an extreme distillation of ideas that could fill a dissertation, but I find this to be the best framework for discussing Zero. As such, I want to highlight the three tracks that illustrate my listening experience.

Jeroen Elfferich

Jeroen Elfferich

The sixth track, Wirrwarr, begins in the same manner as most of the pieces on the album. One piano introduces a simple, brief idea, which is repeated a short while until a second idea is added. Layers of material continue to build until a certain density is reached, at which point elements are varied. Where Wirrwarr initially succeeds is that the patterns created by the interaction of these different layers are intriguing. I found myself entering into a listening mode where I was teasing apart the various ideas and hearing different details emerge. The changes to the texture were subtle, allowing me to stay in this listening mode, and they did not hint at any particular direction for the piece.

Then halfway through this six-minute piece, a strong bass abruptly line emerges and the harmonies begin to shift, jarring me out of my listening mode. Such a change is not inherently a problem, but it is indicative of my experience with Zero—I never felt entirely comfortable with how I was supposed engaging with the music. Wirrwarr continues, with some lovely shifts of harmony and forward momentum, but then these ideas fade out, leaving only the opening two ideas to conclude the piece. Instead of feeling like a natural resolution, it seemed to only highlight the conflict between these two listening modes.

The seventh track, The Race, is probably the best of the album, but it is not without its flaws. Energetic from the start, there is interesting rhythmic interplay and Elfferich does a wonderful job of exploring the range available to him with two pianos. The piece flows, has a sense of direction, and kept me engaged with changes of texture and dynamics. Yet a little over halfway through the piece things become a bit more static. Additive processes take over, and while there is a bit of a sense of crescendo at this point of the work, the temptation to slip out of a goal-directed listening becomes quite strong, diminishing what otherwise could have been (was intended to be?) the apex of the composition.

Tides, which follows, bears resemblance to the Etudes of Philip Glass. The lush harmonies are powerfully evocative, and I was drawn into the piece immediately. But where Glass tends to vary the textures within his Etudes, Tides does not change significantly. The emotional content grew stale over time, and I found myself in the odd place of wishing the piece were shorter and had fewer repetitions.

I wish that I had enjoyed this album more. If nothing else, I am always on the hunt for more repertoire to perform, and I was optimistic about Zero after hearing a few samples. Still, I do think there is an audience for this music, and it may well be that I my reaction is the exception. I would encourage you to give it a listen and decide for yourself, because, if nothing else, I would hate to turn anyone away from the style of music I adore so much.