Like many of the ideas John Cage proposed, the concept of prepared piano was originally thought of as scandalous. And like so many of his proposals, it was brilliant in its simplicity. What Cage did was literally prepare a piano before performance by attaching various objects to the strings to make them resonate as they never had before. These items were usually fairly small, such as bolts, washers, buttons, rubber bands, and the like. His experiments were first done in 1940, and seemed to slowly catch on, with other artists expanding and refining the ideas in later years.
As mastermind of the Zeitkratzer collective, Rheinhold Friedl may have worked up the most significant new directions for piano, which he came to call Inside Piano. Where previous efforts tended to use the keys of the instrument to vary the sounds, such as striking them in particular ways, Friedl has chosen to open his up and play the strings themselves. This approach has led to a revolutionary way of playing the instrument. By bowing the strings, placing rocks and many other objects on them, Friedl’s piano is able to produce previously unheard tones.
In fact, many of the pieces on his solo, double-disc collection Inside Piano sound as if a veritable orchestra is at work. One of the most inviting aspects of this over-two-hour set is the ways he explains each of its nine pieces in the liner notes. Beginning with the relatively short “evasions pour deplaire” (8:03), the composer wishes to expose the listener to the short, “harsh” effects of noise piano, by playing a series of springs on the springs.
With the listener now suitably prepared for what is to follow, Friedl delves into the longest track on the disc “l’horizon des ballons” (39:16). As he puts it, “It is almost a monadic piece concentrating on sounds produced with a metal tube on the strings. Starting scanty and unassertive, it takes almost ten minutes until the piano really sings before finishing much later with the vibrato sounds.” Disc one is completed with “la consequence des reves” (11:42), and is constructed with diversified sounds, which serve to bring us back down to earth a bit.
The second disc opens with “l’espoir des grillons” (21:10), another lengthy track in which Friedl expands his sound palette. In fact, this one is most representative of what could be called the “orchestral” sound of his Inside Piano. During “ombres d’ombres” (12:12), the compser treats us to the sounds of wobbling objects on the strings, and their juxtaposing with contrasting materials. Of the nine tracks present here, I find this one to be the most evocative of something Bernard Herrmann might have come up with for a Hitchcock film.
“es cris des cantharides” (8:50) is described as a “short study of piping and scratching followed by another juxtaposition.” “chevelure des cognasses” (8:46) uses vibrating tones along the strings to come up with a glorious sound, and is one of my favorite pieces. With “pendeloques de glace” (15:40) it seems the composer has one more elongated track up his sleeve. During this piece, the composer takes the vibrating strings to the lower registers, producing a deep and somewhat disconcerting sound at times. This all leads up to “la grimace du soleil” (4:09), or “the singing piano, which finishes the recording,” as Friedl explains.
Inside Piano is a remarkable avant-garde work, but that should come as no surprise considering the quality of artists Friedl has worked with. Some of the more well-known names include Lee Renaldo, Lou Reed, and Merzbow, among many others.
Remember the old LP covers that used to advise record store clerks as to where to file various albums? The covers would say things like “File Under Pop,” or “File Under Easy Listening.” Friedl has his own categories listed on the back of his CD: “File under experimental, or contemporary music, or modern classic, or avantgarde.”
I have always found this system rather humorous, but in Friedl’s case it certainly makes sense. Inside Piano probably would not fit comfortably in between Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga at the front of the shop. No, I expect this set to be found deep in the experimental, classical section, and only by the truly dedicated fan seeking out the most extraordinary music.
Before closing, I would like to make a note about the incredible sound of the set, for it is magnificent. Rheinhold Friedl recorded these nine compositions at the Philharmonic Luxembourg last year, using a Steinway D-274 piano, and Neumann U87 and Neumann KM184 top-of-the-line microphones.
Inside Piano is a master class on composing and playing what is in effect a completely new instrument. It is an absolutely stunning achievement.