Voices and Piano, Peter Ablinger

The Austrian composer’s large scale “song cycle” for piano and recorded speech maps the liminal spaces between voice and language, sound and music.

Pianist Nicholas Hodges supposes that Voices and Piano’s music resides in “the relationship between the two parts, their counterpoint,” and he’s probably right. Whilst composer Peter Ablinger reckons “the piano part is the analysis of the voice,” and he might be too, especially if we understand analysis to be a dynamic process of meaning and form construction, not just extraction. Whereas when taped voice number eleven, urinal-signer Marcel Duchamp, says “an anti-artist is just as much an artist as the other artist; ‘anartist’ would be much better,” it’s not clear whether his comment bears any relation to the composition in which it appears, although it somehow feels like it should. And what about taped voice number two Gertrude Stein? Well she goes something like “very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine,” but I don’t think meaning is really the point in her bit anyway.

And much of Voices and Piano – a yet to be completed cycle of duets for piano and archival recordings of speech begun in 1998 – follows Stein’s lead, revelling in the strange sensations of words in mouths and ears. When DJ Bonnie Barnett slows to relish every last syllable of the phrase “our local trumpet treasure,” Ablinger’s right there with him, the piano tiptoeing around the pauses with anticipatory delight. And this must be the “analysis” of which the composer speaks: it’s as if the piano is listening intently to the voices, imitating and describing them in its own musical language. But analysis doesn’t come without interpretation, of course, and the piano can’t help but impose its own will upon the recordings: Barnett’s joy in his clipped plosives and Stein’s gainly momentum are undeniably there, but they’re amplified – exaggerated, distended – by the piano’s cartoonish aping. Voices and Piano, then, acts as a map of potential ways of hearing these voices, ways to structure their flows, their rhythms and silences.

But there’s meaning in there too, in the midst of all the sensual playfulness. In fact, it’s difficult to ignore what’s being said when the spectral host of voices includes figures of such historical stature, even if the staunch formalism of the piano may often seem to want to. Take Orson Welles’ controlled, yet vehement, McCarthy-era disavowal of Communism, heard against a backing of frozen, crystalline stillness apposite to more than just the immense gravity of his vocal chords. It’d also be nice to think that the inclusion of Morton Feldman’s ruminations on the process of composing – accompanied by some dare-I-say-it poetic chiming from the piano – holds personal significance to Ablinger himself. “Listen to me, you’re lost,” Feldman concludes as the balletic dance of music and speech abruptly ends, leaving a fleeting moment of resonant ambiguity. Ablinger’s not one for sentimentalism though, and the void is soon filled by the next in the procession of voices: I can’t understand a word this one’s saying, but there’s just something about its understated cadence that really sings.

[Edit, 9th August 2015: Since the time of writing, the recording referred to below has been removed from Spotify. The recording can currently be heard on YouTube here.]

Listening notes: Sections from Voices and Piano – projected to include around 80 parts upon its eventual completion – are available on a number of recordings, and the extensive selection played by Nicholas Hodges on the Kairos label is streaming above.

The piano’s texture is liable to sudden change as each speaker runs through the plurality of tones and tempos in everyday speech. When Bertolt Brecht reaches a brief aside the piano pivots from its initial spikiness to a muted babbling (Brecht, 0:39), only to revert to its previous style as the speaker once again assumes a declarative tone. Listen also for the lurch of momentum when the piano reconfigures its relation to Gertrude Stein’s poetry readings, moving from a close imitation of the voice to a cascade of chords (Stein, 2:42). Later on, Ezra Pound’s nasal imitation of an official at London’s American Consulate, is made even more bilious by the piano’s stabs of high dissonance: “a nasty little whining voice was heard saying ‘we want them all to go back’” (Pound, 0:45).

Image: Pair IV, John Stezaker