Classical, Jazz, New Music
Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, July 1st, 2014
In Family Portraits Andrea Keller, on piano, with Boss RC loop station, Line 6 delay pedal and preparations, presents a deeply personal collection of compositions. Keller’s ninth album as leader utilises loop and delay pedals to complement the piano, as well as preparations to the strings that emphasise the percussive quality of the instrument. In the CD insert Keller tells of the global spread and separation of her extended family, and of the first meeting with her grandmother, an experience that inspired the music. A short paragraph on each composition is also included, and most of the pieces are dedicate to a family member. The starkness of the solo piano in combination with this genealogical focus gives an emotional weight to the work. Wandering between jaunty, bouncy melodies, eerily quiet and elegiac meditations, lush impressionistic landscapes, and passages of welling minimalistic energy, the programmatic nature of Family Portraits sets it apart from comparable instrumental albums. The loop and delay pedals enable Keller to create full and forceful rhythmic and harmonic motifs over which she can improvise freely. Harmonically Keller’s playing references the more subdued moments of 19th and 20th century art music, modern rock experimentation like Radiohead, Steve Reich’s minimalism, and of course jazz, the field in which she is most widely recognised. Her playing is characterised by an adventurous lyricism and tonal variation, impulses accentuated by the pedals and preparations that feature on most of the pieces.
The opening track Golden Strawberries begins with dark chord figures, but five minutes in, the layers of sound have built up (via the loop station), enabling Keller to explore the combined effects of the minimalist upper register and monolithic lower register octaves and clusters. Soup Tin Baby is a more “straight ahead” solo piano piece, with no effects, and Keller’s impressive jazz improvisatory language is featured here. Fern Tree veers away from the jazz idiom: a melancholy tonality dominates this piece, with its doubling of left and right hands in the improvisation. Half way through we hear the distinct reverse delay effect, which creates an otherworldly slow-motion mood. From this Keller kills off the effects and begins afresh, this time gradually tweaking the delay parameters to slightly ? the arpeggiated left hand figure that forms the rhythmic basis of that section of the piece. Incomparable again makes use of the delay pedal, creating a washed-out atmosphere. Composed in honour of the “patient, wise and humble character” of Keller’s brother, Incomparable contains moments of stark beauty, contrasting with thunderous lower register figures that dominate the middle of the piece.
One of the highlights of the album – Belonging – is elastic in tempo and character, featuring passages of swooping scales that contrast with melancholic and dense middle register chords that possess a static quality reminiscent of some of the duets in Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. For Love is impressionistic in tone, recalling the shimmering splendor of Claude Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral. Paper Sandals uses preparations on the upper strings to create a more percussive and textured sound. Keller later combines the prepared and un-prepared registers of the piano, giving another colouristic aspect. Without a Voice is the emotional core of the album, dedicated to “the three grandparents I never had the chance to meet”. The piece builds to intense moments of massed sound, similar to the playing of Chris Abrahams of The Necks. Utilising the loop pedal, Keller samples herself, enabling the piece to reprise and juxtapose sections like a Charles Ives work.
The eleven tracks of Family Portraits comprise a sonic landscape of impressive musical breadth, a fine achievement to sit alongside Keller’s small ensemble recordings.
VIEW: Keller performing Fern Tree from Family Portraits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vkAdMXB-FXY