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Piano’s Inner Life

Nilan Perera, Exclaim!, January 1, 2004

Back in the ’60s and into the ’70s, there was a style of painting that came into popularity called hyperrealism. True to its name, it portrayed fairly mundane objects (cars, storefronts) in ferocious detail, paying obsessive attention to reflective surfaces and colour. The results were perspectives that the human eye could not reproduce if it looked at the same object, due to the physical limitations of the eye itself. Marilyn Lerner has presented an album of solo piano music that uses various recording techniques to give us audio snapshots of music that you could not hear in real life unless you managed to get inside the piano itself. In this way she has taken an interesting approach that gets into the realm of electroacoustics and remixers. The music itself is a fascinating mix of tuned percussion, electronic glitch, orgies of overtones and blazing technique. The debts to Messiaen, Cage and Debussy have been paid off with interest and Lerner manages to avoid the trap of having the piano preparations and extended recording techniques sound like gimmicks. It’s a real treat to hear piano music as it’s heard by the musician, in all its detail and at the same time realise that she is responding so closely to subtleties that a live listener could only guess at. A remarkable piano album in which the piano itself becomes a truly significant other.

What inspired you to record an album this way? Lerner: Well, first of all, recording piano has always been a pain in the ass. I had been interested in audio for a while and what different mics can do, so l wanted to work with the shadings and colours of sound and work through some of that stuff. We also worked with compression in the mastering stage to bring out some of the harmonics in particular pieces, but it’s mainly about improvising. It’s all improvised. The mastering and recording were kind of like developing photographs, where you bring out certain things in that process, but it was the musical integrity of each piece that I was going for. In that way it’s a very personal snapshot of where I am right now when it comes to the piano and improvising, but it’s also a chance to get a listener’s ears right inside the piano.

Do vou plan on taking a similar approach to live playing? Yeah, if I could find someone who was hip to do it with, but it’s also tricky because it’s such a specific situation. You can’t just go into a club and make it work. You need a good PA and mics and a technician who’s also a musician, a good piano and a good room. I mean if I could find all that in one place, I’d love to do it.

A remarkable piano album in which the piano itself becomes a truly significant other.