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Steve Maclean – Expressions on Piano/GPS


Steve Maclean – Expressions On PianoSteve Maclean’s oeuvre touches a fair few nodes on the circuitboard of ‘experimental’ music – from collaborations with insects, multiple-effected guitars to ensemble compositions and ‘academic’ work, in line with his post at Assistant Professor in Music Synthesis at Berklee College of Music. The first of our two records here, Expressions on Piano, is closer to his day-job in the academic world – a series of rhythmically and melodically complex compositions showing a debt to various 20th-century figures of piano composition (Conlon Nancarrow being perhaps the most obvious comparison). But we’re not in the realms of the ‘navel-gazers only’ club of a lot of contemporary academic music – underneath the rigorously prepared and exquisitely recorded compositions for piano, there’s an inviting and gratifying sense of melody and beauty.

Expressions… treats the piano like a potential orchestra of effects, using the studio as a means to accentuate those secret sonorous corners of the piano. This is perhaps most apparent on “Progression of Live…Growing older,” which starts off as a relatively standard, rhythmically repetitious chord and arpeggio pattern; what ensues over the course of the piece is that the overtones from this pattern seem to be fed back into the body of the piano strings, leaving marimba or sine-like overtones rising in volume as the main pattern decays. It’s a really striking effect, inverting the usual attack/decay pattern of emphasis in piano pieces. The attached blurb declares the recording process to be “impenetrable,” which is certainly true; but impenetrable doesn’t imply complexity so much as it valorises Maclean’s discrete morphing of piano tones into gong, harp and even waterphone-esque sounds.

For me, the standout track on this album is “Impressions on Piano.” In it Maclean seemingly uses consonant, major key clusters and shockingly assiduous application of recording techniques – areas of the piano rendered as soft, rounded notes multi-tracked with more sharply recorded tones. It’s faintly reminiscent of Nancarrow’s player piano pieces, but Maclean’s use of studio possibilities, to extend the piano to a sort of piano-da-gamba, renders the piano more as a fluid source than Nancarrow’s superhuman pianist impressions. There’s not an ounce of showing off to the piece; rather Maclean is affectionately tickling the piano’s belly with multi-tracks and recording devices to bring out all of its tonal potential. It’s likely far from playable, yet is legions away from the robotic sound gymnastics of Nancarrow.

More generally, Maclean seems to be a master of the compositional effect – tracks move through several registers, rhythms and styles in astonishingly quick succession, without ever feeling like he’s scattering the stave with a litany of academic ideas; there are moments throughout the record where he’ll jump from Eric Satie-esque fractured chords to Charlemagne Palestine-like phases; a wash of Nancarrow clusters cedes to Steve Reich-ian pulse. There are moments of high-pitched ostinato passages which reminded me of a Helmut Lachenmann you could introduce to polite company (note: I’m sure Helmut is the perfect guest in person). But, in spite of these potentially haughty references, Expressions… is rarely in that difficult territory of high avant-garde, inaccessible to the non-academic – I could easily imagine this being background music for a decent meal, while still having enough academic meat for a composition student to break a tooth on. A rare and quite brilliant record.

Unfortunately, I can’t be as effusive about GPS. It’s one of those odd records I can’t seriously fault in any way – Maclean’s guitar is delicately articulated, the rhythm section is tight without being anal, the compositions move along in an elegant way… it just doesn’t flick my switches. I tried thinking about my go-to criticisms of band music – the drummer doesn’t take liberties, sitting back and gently supporting without ever being perfunctory; the bassist is earning his keep with some deft but never showy lines; the pianist does some fine work interjecting spare melodies over the more meandering improvisatory sections. And Maclean clearly has some calibre as a composer. He arranges songs with time signature changes which never jar and developing his parallel-metre ideas in Ensemble format. There’s nothing wrong with the record, it just doesn’t quite gel with my tastes, for reasons I can’t quite fathom.

It may be because the outfit is a bit too together – bits of the record reminded me of Weather Report, shorn of Jaco Pastorious‘ tiresome indulgences; there’s a lack of the knife-edge frailties which makes for a good ensemble record, in my mind. Maclean has a few stock ideas – melodies and chord structures common to both records – and it’s odd how they work on Expressions… but not GPS. With the solo piano, the melodies jump out, without so much as a snare drum to keep them company; perhaps my disdain is that Maclean’s a fine enough composer to not need an ensemble to bolster his ideas? It feels unfair to say that, so I’ll implore the reader to make their own mind up – it’s certainly not a bad record, just a smidge too close to the more prosaic realms of fusion jazz for my tastes.

-Kev Nickells-

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2 comments to Steve Maclean – Expressions on Piano/GPS

  • Thanks to Kev for a thoughtful review, that’s great! You are clearly an informed listener with a solid musical background who can express some remarkable insights for the reader. I find this is becoming somewhat rare these days so it was much appreciated to find this review!

    However, I cannot be sure if you received a hard copy CD or used a download method to review my work… but my guess is you didn’t have access to the liner notes that accompany each disc? In case I am correct in this regard I might offer a few more details and comments here that seem worth noting – this is mainly a part of the release materials but I may elaborate further as well.

    I do find it fascinating that a quick one month composing frenzy on my piano would seem to carry more enthusiasm than the efforts and results from a full band project that I consider one of my best developed projects to date. To me, even if only considering the time required from inspiration and ideas to composing difficult pieces with once a week rehearsals for months to ready the group for the studio recording sessions, then returning to my own studio with 2 full days worth of Pro Tools session files in high resolution multi-track format containing staggering bundles of data, choosing which sections of our free improvisation material to focus on and then mixing those works along with the composed pieces.. this means GPS is a totally different kind of project because it requires months of time and effort to complete. In contrast, the solo piano CD was a very quick side project because once the pieces were completed each was simply captured in a single stereo recording as a live piano performance. This is, to me, what is most interesting about the work and the idea for it… the approach and recording technique as mentioned in the liner notes is a matched pair of tube mics yet the fact it is essentially a live recording may not have been entirely clear from the description.

    I can appreciate that you’d hint how I don’t “need” and band… while that’s entirely true, perhaps you miss the main point of the record. I “want” a band. It is a fun/social AND musically rewarding experience to play music with others. As a computer-based artist for over 20 years I have already enjoyed many, many projects working with all variety of “machines” from general purpose devices to elaborate specialized hardware configurations. These works offer tools for developing a process that can be applied to either paradigm, studio compositions or works realized by live musicians “playing together”. As you may not have known, these fellows and I have a rich history of perhaps 15 years working out the logistics of performing some very difficult works. This record has special meaning for us because it also includes some thoughtful improvisation approaches that we have been developing over the same time duration but rarely recorded. I doubt that the download version of the release gives any details about which cuts are completely improvised as a pure musical expression group experience with no plan at all, no prior discussion, nothing. This music just appears out of thin air….

    I will not address Weather Report specifically because honestly I’ve never listened to them much except to be generally aware of them, of course.. but I must take exception to the jazz fusion references in particular. One of the beautiful things about playing together with these fellows is that over many years our senses have trained in such a way that we would “never” do any of that showing off chops kind of soloing, it simply does not exist anywhere on this record. Add to that the kinds of harmonic systems we tend toward in improvisation (or in any of my compositions for that matter) being more in the directions of Satie, Eno, or any of many 20th century compositional references I could mention here, one you will certainly not find in my work is the use of typical “jazz harmony”. Each of these players goes to great lengths to avoid over-playing, and this was the focus of the work. In my opinion, jazz fusion is not to be found on this record. The element of “a groove” was not any more important than any other aspect, if it happened at times, we grooved, but more often not. I don’t think that quite matches up with fusion so well. Instead… consider stasis, space, sparse vs aggressive noise and certain outbursts are likely more commonly found here.

    What I had intended by including the final track, which is sadly not mentioned at all in your review, it to illustrate a bit of how the sounds found “in nature” can be applied to a musical interactive experience. For example, Dave Fields is an amazingly hard hitting rock drummer (no fusion coming from there at all) and his role in this project (and what he could gain for the overall effort) was constant attention to dynamic range with subtle, delicate textures while playing only “just the bare minimum” in terms of notes added to the mix. This is one example but each of had concerns to focus on as well..

    Since you’ve mentioned my work with bugs, frogs and other sounds of the natural world, I was stunned you missed an opportunity to discuss the final track “One Day In Paradise” – a computer piece included because it hints at our motives musically. Missing this kind of misses the point of the entire project where a listener can “get it”. Here is a short list of features I would have assumed noted about GPS…

    Throughout, the compositions focus on a minimalist style, “any” musical style being fair game and this is true for the improvisations as well.

    The guitar controller plays a number of other sound sources for a broad spectrum of textures from gritty bit crushed/ring modulated harmonic systems (sum and difference tones) found in Whale Wars to the collection of perhaps 1000 unique guitar textures and techniques for playing them I have developed over a 20 year period such as on the track called Tranquillity. I consider this to be some pretty fancy guitar playing by today’s standards, not just “making noises” as the pitches and structure are carefully chosen.

    This record (as all of my records like a cryptic diary of “life” and so it should represent every aspect of life, from joy, sorrow, pain, anger, solitude, social settings, etc. And at times, tonal music can better express these more happy emotions as a part of real life too. I wouldn’t exclude them, would you?

    I will be happy to elaborate further if anyone cares to jump into this, it’s all fun to communicate using the technology with interested readers from around the world! I hope you’ll enjoy the music…

    Peace, SM

  • Hi to All…I’m sorry for the typos and any other errors .. it was very early morning and I am slowly going blind, actually losing my eyesight.. please change the name of “Ken” to “Kev” for me. Please also excuse the obvious typing errors as I was eventually rushing off to my first class of the morning when I posted this. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my intentions with the GPS release.. thanks!

    All my best,

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