Sebastian Lexer - piano+
1. time 09:40
2. defining edges 07:17
3. rapprochement 07.22
4. tone 05:29
5. abscissa and ordinate 14:02
6. opposition 11:59
John Tilbury, CD sleeve notes for dazwischen, May 2009
Samuel Beckett prophesied [the piano's] demise in Watt:
"The piano is doomed, in my opinion, said the younger.
The piano-tuner also, said the elder.
The pianist also, said the younger."
I no longer share Beckett's gloomy prognosis. In the hands of Sebastian Lexer, with his piano and his computer, good music is being created. Can there be any other criterion?
Derek Walmsley, The Wire (October 2009)
This first solo album from Sebastian Lexer, a longterm member of Eddie Prévost's London improvisation workshops, is a rare instance of the piano being exhaustively reworked, from the keyboard to the interior. In standard use, the instrument is a marvel of polite engineering, its 88 strings carefully muted and rigorously controlled. In the hands of Lexer, it's a vast web of potential tones and resonances, elegant yet frequently menacing. Exploring it takes a whole range of strategies - carefully bowing strings, messing with the dampers as if picking locks. It's a tense investigation best undertaken alone.
Lexer's piano playing involves several microphones (as did Peter Evans's equally exhaustive 'Nature/Culture' from earlier in the year), strategically placed speakers, as well as a custom software patch recording and feeding sounds back into the mix, sometimes using granular synthesis (hence Lexer's distinctive instrumental credit, 'piano+'). Sparingly used, this sampling escapes the predictability so characteristic of looping and layering - sounds are triggered by certain volumes and pitches, as if occasional memories are seeping back into the room, and the ring modulation applied to some of the samples gives a faint tinge of insubstantiality. In "Rapprochement", long metallic shivers from bowed strings are held frozen in the air before a creaking lower register note suddenly groans into life, a moment as cinematic as a houseguest pausing on the threshold of a haunted mansion. On "Defining Edges" and "Tone" Lexer is mainly at the keyboard, but the piano seems to have been rewired so unfamiliar tones deep inside the machine, somewhere between wood and metal, are being tapped and sustained.
While reed instruments are all about air and pressure, the piano is essentially about sustain. The silky elegance one usually associates with the instrument is a result of careful engineering, so that one string sounds seemlessly after the previous one. On "Dazwischen", the whole mechanism is opened up to the forces of chance and chaos, picking up all kind of ethereal vibrations - a true ghost box.
Stuart Broomer, Point of Departure, April 2010, (http://www.pointofdeparture.org/PoD28/PoD28Ezz-thetics.html)
[...] Lexer's Dazwischen must be viewed as one of the most important (and beautiful) CDs of improvised music released in the past year. Referring to his work as piano +, Lexer has developed a computer patch that (conjoined with multiple microphones and various forms of signal processing) allows him to record and modify sounds he makes in and around the piano. Given the nature of the signal processing, Lexer is "dazwischen" (in between), involved in a genuinely complex process that's as much composition as improvisation, as much electronic as acoustic music making. Chain-sounds, bits of electronic grit and soundwaves mix with struck piano tones. Apparently acoustic piano sounds bend gently and elusively into the reign of the electronic. Listening to Dazwischen, a listener is in-between as well, suspended between knowing and not knowing how something is made, whether it's recorded music being processed or live piano playing, and what degrees of intentionality and control (absolute, permutating?) are enacted in the ultimately resultant sounds of these luminously meditative pieces. The very slight alterations and additions to piano sound in a piece like "Opposition" possess both detailed precision and a fresh vision, reconstructing some of the possibilities of sound. [...]
Dan Warburton, Paris Transatlantic Magazine, Yule 2009, (http://www.paristransatlantic.com/magazine/monthly2009/12dec_text.html#9)
It goes without saying that, for improvising pianists, John Tilbury casts a long shadow, not only as arguably the only pianist of his generation to pull the piano out of the orbit of free jazz (echoes of which continue to haunt the work of all his contemporaries) but also as an eloquent spokesman for areas of new music and politics that have assumed greater importance over the past two decades. It's inevitable that his name should come up in discussing Sebastian Lexer's long-awaited solo album, as he also provides (along with Eddie Prévost and Ian Stonehouse) liner notes for the set. But Lexer, as this collection of six pieces shows, is very much his own man both on and inside the piano, routing its sounds through a Max/MSP application of his own design (hence the "piano+" appellation) to explore nuances of pitch and timbre with scientific precision and painterly elegance. Along with Blasen, his Another Timbre duo outing with frequent playing partner Seymour Wright, it's Lexer's finest work to date. Get it.
Massimo Ricci, 17th November 2009, (http://www.squidsear.com/cgi-bin/news/newsView.cgi?newsID=1077)
"Dazwischen" is a word that stands for "in between", which is rather explicative of what Sebastian Lexer does. A former music student at London's Goldsmith College, where he came from Germany, the composer has been developing his skills under, and collaborating with, fundamental tutors such as John Tilbury and Eddie Prevost, both contributing — together with Ian Stonehouse — to the particularly interesting and informative liner notes contained in the CDs booklet. Indeed this is his first solo recording after years of intense exploration and live performances . Make no mistake: we're talking about a masterpiece, definitely one of the best debut releases in this sonic area.
To specify the microcosm through which he builds a world of concentrated occurrences, subtle overtones and vibrating halos, Lexer utilizes the definition "piano+". The instrument is augmented by a laptop fueled by Max software, the rest of the setup consisting of microphones, speakers ("set inside or very close to the piano") and several means for controlling the resulting processes. This system permits a considerable measure of control to the performer, yet extraneous or unpredictable elements — including those derived from eventual instrumental partners — also have a say. Once captured by the mikes and processed this generates a palette of timbres that gets further modified via extreme equalization, ring modulation, granulation and so forth. Parts of the ensuing sounds may be stored and re-triggered by subsequent events in a sort of acoustic cybernetic procedure that gives birth to some of the most beautifully natural resonances heard in a long time.
In Civilization Phase III, Frank Zappa had theorized — trying to reproduce it musically — the concept of "life in a piano". This image, in an entirely different context and with completely opposite results in terms of sonority, is exactly what flashed in my mind while analyzing this work. Lexer, although maintaining the basic tonalities recognizable, is especially able in evoking a vast range of sensations and colors — intimate abrasiveness to elegiac melody, concrete inconveniences to imposing reverberation — without losing sight of the value of a sequence of regular notes. In "Abscissa And Ordinate" a whole cosmos of prepared, computerized and unadorned pitches is marvelously synthesized, a single humming tone lingering for stretched segment of awesome suspension amidst meagre rings and delicate-to-hammering sparse hits. It's during these situations that one is tempted to proceed with the typically useless maths of association, yet this perceptive musician seems to have found the ultimate terrain for growing an artistic vision into a fully fledged individual personality, letting the audience preserve a clear mental picture of what happens despite the obvious incongruity of this music against the notion of negligent listening. In that sense, Dazwischen is an even more stunning achievement.
Richard Pinnell, 20th August 2009 (http://www.thewatchfulear.com/?p=1455)
Months ago, around the time Sebastian Lexer finished one stage of his PhD studies he told me that now he felt that the technical side of his academic research into the Max MSP system he had been developing was complete, he felt himself in a position to be able to stop adjusting and improving the tools he used for his music and to begin using what he had, working with the materials in their current state to find their potential and their limitations through their creative application. On Dazwischen, his first solo album just released on Matchless Recordings Lexer has realised this in wonderful fashion. He has taken the piano, its form, its sound and its history and applied his Piano+ digital framework around it, extending that potential further, making, as John Tilbury states in the disc's liner notes, the physically impossible possible.
I don't fully understand the workings of Max MSP, or Lexer's Piano+ patch, but essentially it seems to work like this; Lexer plays the piano, I hesitate to say normally, because he spends half his time inside the hood rather than addressing the keys, but in a manner improvised music listeners will be familiar. The sounds inside the piano are then captured by one or more microphones that instantaneously feed the signal into a laptop, where some of the sounds are processed and then output through a set of speakers. This all happens in an instant, and the nature of the processing is controlled by Lexer via a small control box usually perched just above the keyboard. So the listener gets to hear both the original acoustic sounds plus the electronically altered sound (where Lexer chooses to use them) almost instantaneously.
Just as the danger for a software developer is to be forever amending and never applying, so the danger for a musician using new technology is that they may get carried away with its potential, ignoring the qualities of the original naked instrument and forgetting to make good music in the process. For an improvising musician the application of software to an acoustic instrument then adds the further challenge of not slipping into the pre-determined structures that technology leans towards, something made even harder when working solo, without the external impetus of collaborative input. I suspect that Lexer understand these challenges well, and his struggle with these oppositional polarities may be referenced in the album's title, which translates as "in between." Throughout Dazwischen's six tracks the music never sounds anything less than completely organic and unforced. The use of processing is never hidden, Lexer makes no attempt to disguise his processes, and while in many places the digital sounds are subtle, elsewhere they sound nothing like a piano. Everything comes together with exceptional compositional balance, and the hardest thing for me to accept on my first listen to the CD was that I was only hearing the work of one musician. The combination of acoustic and electronic sound, and their often very different natures suggest two musicians at work, or some kind of overdubbing in use, but in fact these six pieces were recorded in single takes, incredibly all in the same studio session on one day in November 2008.
Lexer has a long friendship and musical relationship with the current members of AMM, Eddie Prevost and John Tilbury. Both have acted as tutors to Lexer in the past, Tilbury formally at Goldsmiths College, Prevost as the leader of the weekly improvisation workshops that Lexer has attended for the best part of ten years. Both provide liner notes to the album, and their influence on its music is abundantly clear. Lexer's most remarkable talent is his sense of space and the compositional placement of sounds within it. His choices of acoustic or electronic sound, pitch, and timbre seem immaculate throughout Dazwischen, combinations of acute harmonies and bruising counterpoint but always just the right decision, with just the right amount of silence before or after. If this was completely composed music it would be a remarkable work. That the music was so beautifully arranged in an improvisational setting is nothing short of stunning. This sense of timing, the ability to build tension just by placing two sounds alongside each other comes directly from the AMM textbook. Tilbury's touch can be heard here, and Prevost's ability to build a framework for a piece of music to move within. There are arc-like climaxes in most of the tracks, moments of explosive expression and charged, delicate lulls. Lexer's own voice is of course the main driver here, this is no AMM pastiche, and certainly his use of technology takes things on beyond the work of his teachers, but the spirit remains, the subtlety, the ability to mould moments of fantastic emotive expression from often just the most elemental of resources.
Each of the tracks has its own character. The opening Time begins with a combination of the lightest of touches and crashing, slightly affected chords that take me straight back to Tudor's Variations II but feed through into wailing tones and a digital chattering. Defining Edges combines prepared piano notes with tiny percussive ticks and deep, echoing throbs. The deeply troubling Tone sees Lexer pick out little clusters of notes, only to eradicate them with massive crashes and blasts of noise. While there is not a weak track on the album the closing twelve-minute piece Opposition is the icing on the cake. Here the music begins with thudded piano notes and their slightly altered electronic echoes shifting in jarring rhythms, but after a while things curl in on themselves, slowing to a gentle, deeply charged pace as a continuous tone appears in the background, perhaps for the only time on the album. Over this a beautiful arrangement of Felmanesque notes and ghostly moans mixes with rattling, scraping, and later a sinetone. The last six minutes of this piece of music are truly wonderful.
Sorry for the hyperbole, sorry for not knowing the words to describe how this album has felt for me over the past couple of days. I have listened to it in excess of twenty times now. I've no idea what others will make of it, but for me it hits all the right spots, over and over. Dazwischen is the perfect combination of the acoustic and electronic, the new and the old, the familiar and the challenging. It is for me easily the best album I have heard for quite some time. Its impact on me has been remarkable. While walking along the Oxford canal path today I found myself stopped still, feet rooted to the floor, eyes closed, as the dramatic surges in Tone played themselves out. I had at that point already heard the album a dozen or more times already. I probably looked stupid but thats what great music does to me.
Brian Olewnick, 26th September 2009 (http://olewnick.blogspot.com/2009/09/sebastian-lexer-dazwischen-matchless-im.html)
I'm not as interested in the software integration used by Lexer on this solo recording, more in the music as such, but the electronics are indeed used well enough that it's tough to imagine the music without them and, in any case, the music is quite good indeed. Richard went more into depth than I'm able to here and if I'm not quite as blown away as he was, this is still one excellent disc. As he points out, most of the pieces feel more like compositions, breathing compositions, than improvisations, all the more impressive when manipulating and assessing the live interaction with the programming, but Lexer carves out his own sound as well. Gentler than Tudor, harsher than Feldman (though alluding to both), more liquid in feel than most post-serialists but still retaining no small amount of astringency, even piquancy. Maybe a tinge of Tilbury but not nearly enough to be a distraction. The cuts work well as a suite though if I had to choose a favorite, it would be "defining edges" with its multiple gentle arcs like flowering branches. Wonderful palette in that one and there's not a sub-par track on the disc. I can easily imagine this one revealing more and more on each listen and look forward to doing so. Get this.
Ken Waxman, 17th Oct 2010, Jazzworld (http://www.jazzword.com/reviews/103628)
[This review discusses Sebastian Lexer's Dazwischen and Magda Mayas' Heartland (Another Timbre at25)]
As part of individual quests for unique new sonic possibilities for improvisation, two German pianists serendipitously recorded these solo CDs during the same month a couple of years ago. Although both of these accomplished musicians are academics as well, the solutions they hit upon are quite different, making each of these discs fascinating listening.
Berlin-based Magda Mayas, who studied both with Georg Gräwe and Misha Mengelberg, uses specific techniques, amplification and preparations to express her inside and outside piano creations without negating the instrument’s innate physicality. She often works with players such as drummer Tony Buck and cellist Anthea Caddy as well. Sebastian Lexer, who is working on a PhD in performance practice at Goldsmiths, University of London doesn’t negate the piano’s material immutability either. However as someone who is also a recording engineer, programmer and lecturer for interactive music and media software, his creation involves a personally developed Max/MSP software and special microphones which allow him to analyze, process and alter the piano’s acoustic impulses. Working in real time, the results often sound as if more than one keyboard is involved. Committed as well to improvisation he plays with musicians such as alto saxophonist Seymour Wright and guitarist Ross Lambert.
Although it may border on the perverse to say so, in a way Mayas’ CD is more traditional, that is if you accept that an instrument’s role is sound production. On one long and one very long selection, her performance relies as much on the percussive as the melodic piano functions. Since much of the time she’s abrasively burrowing within the instrument, for her a theme is something that can be dug, stopped, strummed and plucked from internal strings. Frequently she mashes implements against the taunt strings, evoking timbres that resonate as much on the dampers, capotes and back frame as the soundboard. Simultaneously glissandi or tremolo runs are exposed on the keys themselves.
Yawning echoes and single key slaps are mated with twanging strings and bell-like resonation on “Slow Metal Skin”, the CD’s 32½-minute showpiece. Eventually the interface is such that both the piano’s insides and outsides are decisively exposed. Trembling mbira-like tones reverberate as if the instrument in use is a combination of wooden-rimmed percussion and metal clavichord. Kinetic pedal pressure adds extensive basso tones as individual strings are twanged sharply until off-handed presses give way to cumulative key patterning so dynamic and high frequency that the equivalent string stops and plinks are barely heard. Although the parallel sound expositions seem unstoppable, any suggestion that these strident drones and dynamic chords are produced by software is banished when hesitant fingering and familiar two-handed chording reveal the human factor beside the sequences.
Piano+ and Max/MSP are in use during Dazwischen’s six tracks on the other hand, but without the changes in sound levels or repetitive loops that would shift the emphasis from electro-acoustic to explicit electronica. Instead Lexer’s skill is such that the piano’s true properties are never in doubt. Pitches may be widened with granulation, or ring modulator signals may appear, but human intelligence still remains. With the keyboardist’s ability to manipulate both instruments simultaneously the end result isn’t unlike those improv CDs featuring meetings between laptop or synthesizer players and pianists.
On “Abscissa and Ordinate” for instance, the signal-processed oscillations are followed by adagio bass pedal thumps and steady chording. If the droning crackles and buzzes come from software, then the disconnected key shakes and strokes are created in real time. Meanwhile on “Defining Edges” the low frequency key clanking and reflective timbral clashes create an interlude of their own, only faintly accompanied by time-stretching electrical patterns. Similarly diffident, near-silent key slaps stand out even more when outlined by oscillated warbles.
The software gives Lexer the reed-like timbres or unending typewriter-key-like percussion that could be created or maintained on an un-extended piano. Yet the relationship is close and so organic to what the piano – and the pianist – initially create that, for example, when building crescendos or reflective rebounds arrive that could come from either piano or piano+, there is no need to identify the exact source.
Overall both Lexer and Mayas have created indelible documents outlining different ways in which pianos can and will sound in the future. These CDs should be appreciated for what they are, rather than studied to reveal the nuts and bolts that went into their creation.
Eddie Prévost, CD sleeve notes for dazwischen, May 2009
[...] This CD may be Sebastian Lexer's first as a soloist but no one should infer that this is in any way a beginning. This music has the mark of a mature reflection upon the materials and the issues at hand. I am confident that Sebastian will imprint upon the ensuing development of a music, and social movement, of which he is an emergent creative part. [...]
Ian Stonehouse, CD sleeve notes for dazwischen, May 2009
[...] The final track, opposition, seems to capture what's most unique about his approach, a mix of immaculate restraint and serendipity, teasing out and extrapolating the smallest details into a fragile yet captivating music, a virtually seamless conjunction of technology and performance. [...]