The first quarter of the 21st Century will end in twelve months. How the music of this period will be articulated in the years to come is anyone’s guess. There are countless yardsticks by which it could be measured.
Developments in solo piano music are as good – and as flawed – as any. When assessing the first quarter of the previous two centuries, the examples of Beethoven and Jelly Roll Morton stand out. Their solo piano music subverted contemporary norms and introduced new materials and methods that were refined and reshaped in solo and ensemble music for the remainder of their respective centuries and, arguably, to this day. However, given the prevailing postmodernism of our times, it is doubtful that such towering figures will shape the narrative. At least for now.
Georg Graewe implicitly acknowledges this when he says that Nothing Personal (Random Acoustics), a 3-CD collection of solos, represents his idea of 21st Century piano music, admittedly one of many. At a time when an increasing number of pianists seek to expand the possibilities for the instrument through preparations, direct manipulation of the strings, and interfacing computers and other devices, Graewe is something of a contrarian, who sticks with old school keying and understands the symbiosis between the past and the new.
“For me, 21st Century piano music has to do with tradition,” Graewe recently explained on a video conference call from his home in Vienna. “Development comes out of a tradition and there’s no break in that tradition. Solo piano music has a tradition that goes back to Beethoven – or even before that – and then it goes on to Chopin and Brahms and then to Jelly Roll Morton and into the 20th Century. All the developments in the 20th Century are very strong influences in my music, but I also distance myself from people who think you can’t do anymore with the piano, and do all these preparations and whatever. I think Denman Maroney does a very good job of that, but it seems that for a lot of people it’s an escape from really dealing with elements of piano music and dealing with the tradition.”
How Graewe deals with the idea of tradition sets him apart from most pianists. Coltrane, Schoenberg, and Tristano, may seem like an unlikely trinity, but they have equal standing with Graewe, each contributing ideas about materials and their development foundational to his traditionalism. Graewe’s thoroughly distills these sources – and others, like early Stockhausen and Boulez and late Cecil Taylor – the resulting, relatively marker-free music largely due to Graewe’s relationship to the instrument.
“The piano is not me,” he explained. “I’m not trying to be one with the piano. It’s about trying to do things on the piano that are especially difficult. I’m self-taught. I haven’t gone through the usual training for classical piano, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t studied classical music. I just did it on my own. I have a certain distance from the piano. I think a lot of teachers in the classical tradition who have a little knowledge of jazz love Keith Jarrett. I respect his musicality and his virtuosity, but he gives the impression that he’s inside the instrument somehow. That type of connection is a very romantic idea, but that’s not what I’m after.”
That’s where the title Nothing Personal comes into play. Granted: it is an odd title for the collection, given that solo piano is universally considered to be an intimately personal platform. “Nothing personal” often amends a provocative, even offensive comment, but Graewe has never pursued an assaultive agenda. Instead, his solo music has a conversational tone. It is brimming with well-turned, occasionally allusive, materials, delivered with an even attack (which, along with Graewe’s linearity, can be attributed to the influence of Tristano), all reinforcing the idea that Graewe maintains an arms-length relationship with the piano, instead of smothering it in an embrace.
“The piano is an abstract instrument. It creates an illusion of a sound that is not very realistic, as opposed to the sound of a violin or a clarinet, which are very close to the body. The piano is a mechanical instrument, so it can be an opponent or an adversary,” said Graewe, who led his liner notes with a nod to Stan Tracey’s brilliant late ‘70s solo album, Hello Old Adversary!, a paean of sorts to the problematic instrument he contended with nightly when his was the house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s. For much of the collection, Graewe is heard playing the Steinway at LOFT in Cologne (he also plays a Bösendorfer on some tracks), which he has played often enough over the years to know its most minute characteristics. Graewe’s familiarity with the instrument creates far more subtle terms of engagement than those faced by Tracey, who had to remember which keys to avoid.
These blue-chip instruments are also arguably necessary to realize Graewe’s materials. One can only imagine the results had Graewe been consigned to Ronnie Scott’s piano back in the day, let alone the piano that Mal Waldron battled on Eric Dolphy’s Five Spot recordings. Several of Graewe’s titles are aptly descriptive of the playing. “Fluegelschlaege” (wing flapping) is a piece that swings between robust surging arpeggiations and gliding figures. “Fluechtiges, Tranchiert” (fleeting, carved) is built upon wispy phrases that elongate across several octaves. Other titles describe process, like “Fluechtiges, gestaucht” (fleeting compressed), which revisits materials from “Fluechtiges, Tranchiert” in a more concentrated manner. The tracks that perhaps speak most incisively about Graewe’s aesthetics are the several iterations of “Behauptung und Nachtrag” (statement/assertion and addendum) spread across the collection’s three CDs. “I find sonata form remains a viable way for developing materials,” Graewe remarked. “Sonata form is essentially a statement and addendum. It is the development of the addendum that interests me as a composer and an improviser.” Each piece is a deliberation, a kneading of materials resulting, on one level, in a consistency of bearing, even as their respective shapes differ substantially.
While Graewe emphasizes the role of – the need for – form in his music, it is not merely formal in the sense that it is created in accordance with rules of convention or etiquette. He has been writing his own rulebook for nearly 50 years. It was already apparent from his first FMP quintet dates from the late 1970s that he sought to mediate between composition and improvisation on his own terms (both New Movements and Pink Pong are currently available as Corbett vs. Dempsey CDs). This came into sharper focus later in the 1980s on recordings like his GrubenKlangOrchester’s Songs and Variations (hatART), where, in annotator Bert Noglik’s words, “composed and improvised parts can no longer be distinguished in the end.” Subsequently, regardless of context, Graewe has continued to refine his methods for melding the two disciplines, Nothing Personal being representative of his ongoing efforts.
During the second half of the 20th Century, composers began to incorporate improvisation into their works, while improvisers applied compositional strategies to theirs. They were initially perceived as discrete trajectories. Graewe’s development has coincided with the coming together of these trajectories. He drew upon what were then considered disparate sources, and brought them into an interstitial space where they could coexist. Now, it is widely accepted that these trajectories now wrap about each other like a double helix to constitute the genome of 21st Century practice, and will soon assume the mantle of tradition, if it hasn’t already. Georg Graewe’s music is clearly situated within that tradition.