Steve 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.