On [alloy], Shi-An Costello Deftly Mixes Approaches to the Prepared Piano

An alloy is a metal made by combining various elements with the purpose of creating greater strength, and newest collection of recordings for prepared piano from Shi-An Costello does precisely this. On [alloy], Costello uses the same instrument specifications that John Cage laid out in his 1948 Sonata and Interludes. In one sense, the album’s title refers to the mixture of the metallic piano strings with the metal pieces used to prepare the instrument. But in another sense, it can refer to the mixture of techniques used by the different composers across the album. By combining different compositional approaches to the prepared piano, Costello has created an exciting and engaging album that works just as well as a comprehensive work as it does for each individual piece.

Again and Again by Viet Cuong opens the album and is one of the album’s standout compositions. A common issue with pieces for prepared instruments is that the music often has the effect of a demonstration rather than a complete composition. Using Cage’s set-up has the benefit of more than 50 years of experimentation to learn from, but Cuong’s use of the instrument is masterful. Again and Again is truly a work that exploits both the possibilities of the piano by itself, along with the peculiar additives of its preparation. It is amorphous and its meter is slippery, but there is an energy bubbling beneath the surface at all times, and the work makes great use of its runtime (just under two minutes), leaving us hanging with the suspense of an abrupt ending.

Viet Cuong--Photo by Phil Parsons

Viet Cuong–Photo by Phil Parsons

Then was now by Marina Kifferstein, Letter by Dorothy Chan, and distance. by Aeryn Santillan play with silence and abstraction more than the preceding track. The composers give the listener space to enjoy the natural reverb of the piano, as well as the outright silence in between notes. The grouping of these three works makes sense, and listening to them in succession creates its own overarching form that works quite nicely. After the relative stasis of the music by Kifferstein and Chan, the electronics in distance. create an ostinato that helps to build energy and tension.

Alex Temple’s When I was twenty I briefly dabbled in ceremonial magic uses the prepared elements of the piano as a decoration against its “traditional” use. The unprepared strings are favored so that when non-traditional sounds appear, they act as a punctuation. This is a welcome approach to writing for the prepared piano, and it again speaks to Costello’s curation of this collection. Each successive track contrasts the one came before it in a way that creates a larger form over the span of the album. The multi-movement Moving Puzzles by Danny Clay proves this point. If Temple’s work leans more towards “piano accented by percussive textures,” then Clay’s is exactly the opposite. Moving Puzzles lives in a world dominated by percussive sounds that are ornamented with piano strikes. The most effective use of this writing is in the last movement, “Tightrope,” which only uses the extreme ends of the piano’s register against a clunking percussive sound.

Shi-An Costello--Photo by Phil Parcellano

Shi-An Costello–Photo by Phil Parcellano

Michal Massoud’s Morty’s Jam combines the techniques of the previous two compositions into a seamless work full of figures that both extend and shrink as they repeat. The percussive qualities of the prepared piano really shine in this piece. There are moments–particularly towards the end–where an unsuspecting listener might even mistake the work for a piano-percussion duet. The album’s closing piece, Integrity by Mischa Salkind-Pearl, begins with a single repeating figure separated by a long moments of silence. Each new iteration expands in its own way, either rhythmically or with the addition of a new sound or texture, with the majority of the musical material focused on the mid-range deadened strings. Where the previous works are concerned with exploiting as much of the possibilities of the prepared piano as possible, Integrity is primarily focused on the repetition of a small number of carefully selected musical fragments.

[alloy] is remarkable in its curation: there truly is something for everyone–at least as far as fans of contemporary classical music go–but there are also pieces that warrant a broader appeal. Each composer featured across the album has an entirely different approach to writing for the prepared piano, but Costello has done an amazing job of performing the music in a way that is faithful to the compositions while sequencing the tracks in a cohesive manner and creating a musical through-line. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the title really is appropriate–[alloy] is not just an outstanding collection of individual works, but when taken in as a whole, it works on an even greater level.


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