One of my unexpected highlights of 2017 was the album Contemporary Jewish Music by Polish composer Stefan Węgłowski, a mesmerising sequence of electroacoustic responses to a variety of Jewish sources, utterly transforming them while retaining tangible links to their origins. His latest release, PHASE_1_4, makes that album sound like an exercise in utter clarity, here pushing intangibility to extremes in four movements for piano and electronics.
Without wishing to kibosh this article right at the outset, to some extent this is the kind of album where the less said, the better. The four parts of PHASE_1_4 inhabit an ambient universe, in which the role of the piano (played by Adam Kośmieja) seems at first listen to be just one of a palette of elements working in parallel, perhaps even quite a peripheral one. Spending more extended time in this universe challenges that initial assessment, though to what extent any of its elements exhibits true agency – in the sense of either having an influence on the character and direction of the music and / or affecting any of the other elements – remains debatable. i like this nebulous reality, which has a tendency to insist on being reinterpreted with each new listening.
‘PHASE_01’ presents the key elements: a slightly pitched noise band, repetitions of a single piano note (C), and various forms of granular activity. This last element, though the most elusive, is often the most attention-grabbing, as its details hint at different kinds of tangibility – at one point suggesting far-off birdsong – while ever remaining just out of reach. Its latter half retreats into a stasis out of which very occasional Cs from the piano are the only point of clarity, like a sonar scanning an impenetrable cloud.
Depending on your perspective, ‘PHASE_02’ is either a continuation of the preceding phase or a second attempt to create music from essentially the same elements, now reordered. Either way, it’s not a literal continuation since each of the four parts of PHASE_1_4 have a distinct beginning and end. The piano begins, soon surrounded by similar noise bands, but the granular material is here expanded, sounding both more corporeal (and more obviously electronic) and, more importantly, with a sense of implied power. For a while it remains just a sense, but in due course, the music develops a layer of muscular movement in its depths. A cycling pattern of pitches emerges later, rotating and reverberating until everything subsides into granular buzz and soft rumble.
Where ‘PHASE_01’ was introductory and ‘PHASE_02’ began to develop, in ‘PHASE_03’ Węgłowski expands the identity and potential of the work’s elements, most obviously in the way the piano suddenly introduces additional pitches into its slender palette, now hammered out with real force. Energy is increased across the board: the noise becomes channelled into something akin to a wind tunnel, and the granular elements begin to swirl around the stereo field, emitting Geiger counter-like clicks. It’s here that the relationship between the various elements of PHASE_1_4 is most overtly questionable. Are they in parallel? connected? interacting? It’s possible to hear the emphatic notes from the piano as catalytic, triggering other elements to start or stop, as well as causing them to grow in energy themselves, leading to a complex pulsating texture in which almost everything is recognisable from what’s gone before, but now sounds greatly transfigured. Yet even at its apex, it’s equally possible also to read it as a consequence of mere adjacency, disconnected strata creating an intense cumulative effect.
‘PHASE_04_EPILOGUE’ offers nothing in the way of a conventional resolution. On the contrary, it sidesteps any and all questions in favour of a soft, bokeh-like blurring of the elements into a warm sonic bath, redolent of some of Alva Noto’s extended ambient stases. The granules are gone, smoothed to nothing; the noise remains as a gentle cushion of air; the piano exists either as gentle percussive thuds or faint pitches that just about cut through the thick, suspended harmonic atmosphere. It hangs in space as if for eternity, implacable, unchanging – except for a surge in its bass register that persists for a few minutes – until Węgłowski slowly allows the cushion of air to expand just a little, but enough to slowly absorb everything else.
Considering the fuzzy ambiguity of its soundworld, i can’t help feeling the accompanying blurb for this album is either deliberately tongue in cheek or woefully out of touch, since everything it says is either irrelevant or just plain wrong: “Adam Kośmieja is one of the most expressive Polish pianists of the young generation. His new album PHASE_1_4 by Stefan Weglowski proves this: a monumental piano cycle, grippingly interpreted. […] Lovers of contemporary piano music will get their money’s worth here.” No, i really don’t think they will; but lovers of subtle, elusive, electroacoustic ambient music certainly will.
Released by Kairos on 16 September, PHASE_1_4 is available on CD and download.