Piano Works (revisited)
I was surprised when the two-disc collection of piano music (composed and performed) by Elodie Lauten had me entranced from the opening of the first track: Cat Counterpoint. I approached this particular track with a fair amount of apprehension. I’ve simply been around too many instances of composers using their pet’s meanderings on music instruments as source material. Any hesitation I felt towards the track melted away within seconds. Instead of Lolcats, the room filled with driving and energetic punctuations. You can’t judge a track by its title.
The collected Piano Works from 1983 take the lead on the first disc: Cat Counterpoint, Revelation, Adamantine Sonata, Alien Heart, and Imaginary Husband make for excellent character pieces as well as a cycle of works. There is a foundation in minimalism present, as one would expect from an icon of the Downtown scene. Lauten’s minimalist language is one full of play and punk, separating it from the austere minimalism found safely inside textbooks. The underlying simplicity lends to a strong sense of flow over process. Each piece creates a moment that rarely extends beyond itself nor do they need to extend. These 1983 pieces were constructed with an ear and not a slide rule. I find Adamantine Sonata particularly charming.
The inclusion of ambient sound and supporting electronics is frequent in the 1983 works and the technique is put in overdrive for Lauten’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory. This 1984 set uses a quilt of disconnected instrumental and electronic textures to create eight signature moments. Each of these segments is strongly focused around a shape, texture, or groove and throughout the segment’s lifespan the idea simply is. There is a zen element in this concerto, each track is totally of the moment. Some listeners may want more of a sense of trajectory and dramatic shape but I am not among them. These moments are what they are and as such they are fascinating. The spacious Orchestral Memory and the cheeky Tempo di Habanera form polar opposites of affect and, for that very reason, appeal to me the most. Disc one closes with a fairly straight-ahead Tango with a mournful and husky vocal line.
If you are looking for a deep end off which to go, then disc two will be happy to serve you. Instead of many short tracks, disc two provides two beefy works: Variations on the Orange Cycle and Sonate Modale. Any criticisms laid out about disc one’s lack of trajectory can be laid to rest in Orange Cycle. Within the opening seconds I knew I was going to be here for a while, letting the hypnotic and resonant sounds wash over me, La Monte Young-style. After about seventeen minutes, Lauten does the most amazing thing. The low drone, the foundation of the very work, goes away. The listener drifts and floats, untethered for some time, and when the low voice returns it is not the same static firmament we had left behind us. Where I expected the drone to reassert itself, it never finds full strength again. The piece closes on that drone pitch but with uncertainty, timidity, and quiet. The world of the piece has changed and Lauten did not take the easy way out. Variations on the Orange Cycle is worth every second.
Sonate Modale, in this live recording from Toronto in 1985, is a rather intimate experience. I felt as though I was a fly on the wall while Lauten created all the 1983 pieces and the Concerto. The ambient electronic environments are cut from the same cloth as the earlier pieces and the live piano meanders through gestures and stream-of-consciousness improvisations. Dramatically, the piece works well as a whole, as if Lauten decided to stich together the quilt of the Concerto.