It is rare to listen to a new contemporary piano album that is genuinely original. Much of the piano music I’ve heard in recent years is good, and some of it is exceptionally lovely. I’ve heard beautiful compositions with awesome melodies, performed with great delicacy and feeling. But I don’t hear much that is bold or daring, and even the most delightful pieces stick to safe structures and arrangements.
Stephen Weber‘s extraordinary new album – Minutiae – breaks free of the common norms.
There are 17 tracks, most with single word titles that hint at the nature of the album: Granules, Snippets and Particles are three.
The first piece, Trinkets, sounds a bit like the tune from a musical box. It has an appealing echoey melody, all fairly high pitched until the final deep chord.
But this is followed by Granules with cascades of notes that build to create a swirling circle of sounds. Some composers would have kept swirling around and around, but here the soundscape lasts just over two minutes to end with a brief flourish of treble notes.
Snippets is just that. A short sound, like the interference when tuning a short-wave radio leads to the first snippet… More interference, another snippet… There is a lot of humour in the choice of music for each snippet, each only a few seconds long, as if we are eavesdropping by opening doors on a number of rehearsal rooms.
Particles is a shorter piece – a playful rhythmic pitter patter dancing across the piano strings and casing!
Faded Notes has a gloriously deep, hypnotic slow melody that builds and exploits the bass resonances of the piano.
Dust brings us on to another soundscape in two parts. The first has a simple but haunting melody, and then the “dust” flies from left to right and back, before fading/settling.
Flecks starts with a chord and a simple pattern that becomes the basis for another soundscape, with reversed piano sounds.
Fragments is a tentative piece. I has a melody of single notes that keeps starting over, sometimes developing, sometimes not. Around the two minute mark the melody finds itself, and a gloriously deep resonant bass, before returning to the uncertainty of the beginning. [According to the composer, this piece follows a simple concept: build a long melodic line, but only add one note each phrase: 1, 1+2, 1+2+3, etc. – I would never have guessed that!]
Mementos has a beautifully haunting piano melody, with luscious strings that slowly build. Towards the end of the piece the strings take over, to conclude with a short postscript!
Droplets is a tone poem… Just as it says in the title, random droplets of water falling, until suddenly there is a cascade of water, before the sparse droplets return to ease the piece to its conclusion. (This piece reminded me of my own tone poem of Wind Chimes).
Specks is even more random. It reminded me of electronic works in the 1960s or 70s (a bit Stockhausen).
Flakes is a series of echoey chords over a long sustained string-like note that lasts for the duration of the piece. It’s a nice contrast between the hypnotic drone and the chords that always feel as though they are heading somewhere. They finally do on a Debussy Clair de la Lune chord, which is how the chord sequence starts.
We are back to a massive bass for Traces. The delicate melody develops over an argeggio pattern. Half way through a short pause for breath and the piece has a repeat of some of the initial themes.
Residue is atmospheric, exploring some shimmering bell-like piano tremoloes. I love the higher pitch twinkle that it ends on.
Shards sounds a bit ominous to me. I can hear it in a movie, building the suspense.
Bits And Pieces is exactly that. It leaps from one idea to another, playing with sounds. There are shades of a manic switched on Bach and I’m sure the ghost of Mrs Mills puts in an appearance! It’s wacky, but with cheeky humour.
Finally the album closes with All The Lost Things. It’s a very reflective piece, as if the composer is relaxing following the diverse creativity of the previous tracks.
This is not the sort of album I often listen to. I used to make a point of choosing music that broke boundaries and explored experimental sounds….. but that was a long time ago! This album is not an easy listen, but I like the varied and fun ways that it challenges the norm.
Set aside 50 minutes, grab a beer or a glass of wine, and be prepared to open your ears. You won’t be disappointed.