SOPHIE AGNEL piano & preparations
CAPSIZING MOMENTS - a complete improvisation
1 - part 1 - 19:29
2 - part 2 - 8:49
3 - part 3 - 22:35
Digital concert recording made at Les Instants Chavirés in Montreuil (near Paris)
by Etienne Foyer - 2008 November 14
Total time 50:56
All previously unissued
To prepare a piano is to place objects or materials in between and on the strings of the instrument in order to alter its sound. The choice of these additions, and their placement, create a personal audio universe unique to each preparation. Sophie Agnel’s preparations, neither static nor fixed, evolve during the course of her playing as the pianist adds, moves or removes an object, or replaces one artefact with another. She in fact prefers to speak of the extensive piano. So what are these introduced artefacts? What do these objects, once chosen, do to the sound, to the music, to the piano thus prepared and extended, to the preppiano extensif?
White, breakable, disposable water cups – plastic cracklings, anxieties. Nylon fishing-line – sawn durations, stridencies, alarms. Bouncing balls – prancing capers, cascading trills. Aluminium ashtrays – metallic sputtering, cracklings. This music is evocative, one could describe images born from listening to it. But more profoundly, more concretely, the phenomenon in question is something else.
No metaphor: what is introduced into the piano is plastic made in China, mass-produced aluminium foil, industrial nylon, inner-tube rubber, polished rock: Artefacts, industrial or hand crafted, whose sounds imply their provenance and history. On them is founded a concrete sound-world. This cult instrument of western erudite music, the end-point of high culture and sophistication, is invaded by contemporary pragmatism, manufactured banality, by objects. The indisputable sounds created by this invasion may well preserve their mystery (a blind listener would have trouble discerning just how this music is made). These rumblings, bells, whistles, plastic stridencies, metallic frequencies attest, in the very belly of the piano, to a necessarily contemporary world beyond the piano. The piano is extended into the world. Sophie Agnel puts the world into the piano.
There may never before have been such improvisation on the piano, on the preppiano extensif. One has probably never before lived in such a world...
HENRI JULES JULIEN (2009)
Translated by Sylvie Borel & Caroline Kraabel
"In poche parole, imperdibile! / In a word, unmissable!"
VINCENZO ROGGERO - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2009
"The piano has been around for 250 years, but in the right hands it can still startle and deliver revelations. CAPSIZING MOMENTS captures an astonishing concert performance by French pianist Sophie Agnel at a venue near Paris last November. Agnel dramatically alters the sound of her instrument by introducing all sorts of unpromising everyday objects into its interior, and she has developed her playing technique accordingly to a very high level of refinement. Like fellow improviser Keith Tippett, she makes these provisional and temporary modifications during the actual performance, rather than establishing fixed preparations in advance in the manner of John Cage. Unlike Tippett, she makes this practice the concentrated core of her playing rather than one option amongst a range of others.
The cover credits 'solo piano with variable preparations but no electronics', and there are many moments when it scarcely seems credible that Agnel is performing alone and using exclusively acoustic means. Beyond familiar conceptions of the piano as an orchestra in a box or a self-contained percussion ensemble, Agnel approaches it as a truly expansive sound source. Strings are scraped, bowed, plucked and struck; the casing resonates; industrial chunter dissolves into a swirling overtone haze; penetrating shrillness slides into spectral clusters, then resolves in metallic pounding. Crucially it's not just an expanded conception of the instrument that you hear on this recording but the sound of a skilled musician who has something distinctively her own to say."
JULIAN COWLEY - THE WIRE 2009
"Une prestation qui définit une carrière. / A career-defining performance."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - MONSIEUR DÉLIRE 2009
"As much as I liked all the CDs the huge surprise was the Sophie Agnel. I had suspected a Cagean piece with maybe a little more dynamic and agility, but this was a revelation."
MARK BROWNE - private email 2009
"Pianist Sophie Agnel has been responsible for several fine recordings - notably ROUGE GRIS BRUIT on Potlatch with Lionel Marchetti and Jérôme Noetinger, and TASTING, a duo with Phil Minton on Another Timbre - without quite becoming a known quantity to followers of free improvisation, who are more used to musicians releasing albums by the truckload. CAPSIZING MOMENTS, a 50-minute solo performance from Paris's Instants Chavirés, finds her patiently infiltrating the piano's interior with styrofoam cups, balls, ashtrays, fishing-line, and a battery of other objects. Out of this pile of whimsical detritus emerges some genuinely dark and uncanny music, and throughout Agnel remains impressively in command of all these rattles, roars, buzzes, squeals and other less describable sounds (and sounds-within-sounds). These aren't panoramic 'soundscapes' (that familiar cliché) but sound-terrains, across which the pianist's and listener's slow progress feels entirely physical. If the performance lacks that alarming stuck-in-someone's-head vibe of (say) a Fred Van Hove or Keith Tippett solo recital at its most intense and self-involved, it's nonetheless music that seems to gain in richness and detail every time you listen to it.
The piece is divided into three parts, and, like Dante, Agnel puts the inferno first: a deep subterranean cavern where shapeless vibrations, zithery strums and a more intense percussiveness melt into each other while various rattly dialogues take place on the top. The anvil-blows and mutely pummelled rhythms thin out after 15 minutes into a really lovely passage of bowed strings: again, the textures are lucid and controlled even though there's a lot going on, as Agnel conjures up a humming, singing choir of harmonics. Part 2 is a short Gothic nightmare interlude in three segments - a banshee wail introduction, a demented circular nursery-rhyme episode, and a passage involving dissonant swipes across the strings, which start piling up until Agnel's flailing around like a drowning swimmer.
Part 3 is the longest, quietest and most mysterious, and it demonstrates the pianist's ability to create illusions of spatial and aural mediation: there were parts of the earlier ROUGE GRIS BRUIT where I assumed the piano was being amplified through a tinny speaker or distorted by the other two musicians' electronics, but it's clear from this disc that she is producing such effects acoustically. Some of the most striking moments are the simplest and bleakest, often recalling AMM's minimalist expansiveness (though oddly enough Agnel's playing is actually more reminiscent of Eddie Prévost than John Tilbury): the moment when she zeros in on the buzzy, overextended jangle of a bell, or the gentle coda where a bowed string's weirdly altered attack and decay give the impression of time collapsing in on itself. Top-notch stuff."
NATE DORWARD - PARISTRANSATLANTIC 2009
"She is one of the boldest pianists of today, alongside Cor Fuhler, perhaps. CAPSIZING MOMENTS features her solo at the prepared piano, which she calls 'extensive piano', a well-chosen phrase to describe the range of peculiar metallic and plastic resonances and timbres she adds and substitutes to the instrument’s normal sound palette. But what is most impressive about Agnel is her intense and emotional creativity. Once you accept her unusual soundworld, the listening gets surprisingly easy and carries you off."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - MONSIEUR DÉLIRE 2009
"Sophie Agnel plays prepared piano, although she herself prefers to speak of 'extensive piano'. Her preparations evolve during the course of her playing as, inside the piano, she adds, moves or removes such objects as disposable water cups, foil ashtrays, bouncing balls and nylon fishing line. Fortunately, the whole concert is included unedited, allowing the effect of those shifting preparations to be appreciated in context. They introduce an unpredictable element to the piano, giving the instrument a far broader range of possibilities than an unprepared piano.
At times it's possible to believe a trio is playing as percussive effects or high pitched tones join the conventional piano sound. Tellingly, the album's credits spell out the fact that Agnel used no electronics. This is necessary to counter the available aural evidence; for instance, part 2 opens with a high pitched screech that could be from a violin or soprano saxophone, and is unlike any piano tone. As it is not electronically generated, which of the preparations produced it and how is an open question.
Preparations aside, this work is engaging music, with extensive passages of normal piano. The low end of the piano seems largely to have escaped preparations, judging by the sustained bass rumble that Agnel maintains for large sections of part 1, underpinning her playing elsewhere on the keyboard. The interactions between her left and right hands are captivating throughout. So, in part 2, she generates a rippling effect that is punctuated by percussive chords.
For some pianists, a section of prepared piano acts as a novelty interlude. That is never the case with Agnel. She fully integrates the preparations and they contribute to the drama and excitement of this fine music."
JOHN EYLES - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2009
"This unedited concert probably represents the official induction to the pantheon of distinguished improvisers for a musician who's been working just above the clandestine status in spite of having already released consistently important works, notably the excellent TASTING with Phil Minton on Another Timbre. CAPSIZING MOMENTS portrays the austere humanity of an unaided performer: able and willing to expose her convictions and fears without looking back, ready to be accepted or refused, yet not intentioned to loosen the fighting stance regardless of the human frailties revealed by this splendidly irrational substance, born from the alteration of the instrument's accents via different kinds of inorganic enhancements. The artist calls the apparatus 'extensive piano': a machine whose sonic capacity is positively over-standard.
The first movement starts obsessively percussive, making the most of the big box's lower registers. An initial wall of rumbling tones soiled by an assortment of clattering items is gradually reduced into a series of scantily delivered hits, one or two pitches maximum, echoed by plastic-sounding bouncing and an underlying monochrome pattern that, with eyes closed, we could nearly associate to unclear noises from a remote construction site, or perhaps a chugging motionless boat next to a quay. There's almost a sense of frustration when intuiting the potential expansion of a castle that's instead only a ruin, hopelessly exposed when Agnel suddenly decides that the hammering is finished, the corrosion of resonance left alone to do justice to the mysteriously bitter aura of this momentary transformation in an impressive flash of transcendence.
The rasping bowing introduces to a short and striking episode starting with piercing hyper-squeals - picture a bionic version of Hitchcock's Psycho - instantaneously shut up by a clustery bang. Following a few interlocutory touches, a magnificent arpeggio - interspersed with more dissonant punctuations - is defined by the peculiar reaction of the preparations, a somewhat softer embodiment of Keith Tippett materialising, accompanied by a couple of woodpeckers jabbing a tabla. An irredeemable propensity to harmonic uncertainty is symbolized by Agnel stopping the procedures to start a new scenario of lumpy micro-chords, strings plucked and pounded in increasingly growing rage, a veritable criticism of pianistic savoir-faire.
Five seconds of calmness and we're at the final and longest chapter. The protagonist looks around as to assess the damage done; residual ashes still smoking, memories of turbulent action and faded traces of classical-tinged environments rendered useless by the rattling qualities of every attempted profile. This is where indistinctness and lucidity wrestle, not before trying to reach an agreement: the upper partials are contaminated, the zither-like reverberations oxidized, concordance misshapen to the point of utter estrangement. Out of the blue, an acutely jingling reiteration remains solitary for a short while, immediately replaced by tinny sliding objects, isolated knocks and selected picks spotting this absurdly effective nudity. Indeed the sections in which Agnel diminishes the incidence of the 'regular' piano - a palette prevalently dictated by the contrast between seclusion and instant vision - are possibly the ones who define her greatness, an implacable lust for collapsing archetypal designs kept under strict control by an inner musicality which renders this flux of consciousness akin to a proper composition in countless occasions.
As the performance approaches closure one feels like watching an old animal patiently searching for a place to finally lay its drained body at rest and peacefully expire after many years of life in the wilderness. This compliance with the nature's laws - particularly the acceptance of an end, in effect the unsolved dilemma of most people's psyche - is what makes this music stirring. Birth, existence, struggle, survival, ideas, delusions, demise. It's so obviously wonderful, and CAPSIZING MOMENTS depicts all of this entirely, sensitively. When weak exhalations from the inside imply the piece's termination, further explanations turn out to be a waste of time."
MASSIMO RICCI - TOUCHING EXTREMES 2009
"Agnel's achievement on this CD is creating an original interface by mixing the microtonal and noise-making properties of New music with the aleatory freedom gained through improvisation. Her CAPSIZING MOMENTS encompass pecked keyboard patterns and creaking internal string-stopping mixed with unvarying, percussive chording. Metaphorically bringing karate-chop strength to her clipped and fanned key patterns, Agnel broadens her quivering, off-pitch textures with fishing line abrasions on internal strings - that bring out partials as well as the sounded notes - and sharp slaps on the piano frame and the bottom board for further colouring. Using the fortissimo power resulting from uniting processional and fungible key clusters to pump up the rhythmic accompaniment, Agnel dampens her climatic crescendos by piercing then with staccato whistles and rigid rapping on the external piano wood. With foot pedal pressure extending soundboard reverberations, additionally she produces brutal abrasions by weighing the vibrating strings with heavy objects or slashing at the string set with rigid objects. The sonic results are wave forms that can sometimes swell to suggest massive church bell reverberations or maintain equilibrium by referencing the thumb-tacked action and dampers of Ragtime Revival prepared pianos.
Attaining a final elongated thematic variation, Agnel's penultimate interlude turns from an adagio evisceration of the piano's innards to more percussive undercover work. With objects she hammers on the wound bass strings so that the resulting beats contrast with the portamento runs she inflicts upon the higher-pitched unwound treble strings from the keyboard. Concluding with an intermezzo of pitch-sliding tonality, ocean-waves of glissandi are contrasted with contrapuntal whines and shrieks caused by foreshortened string stops. Finally, as silences bisect strident sonic invention, she replicates cello-like sul ponticello string strokes, daxophone-like whining and flattened key pulses.
As mesmerizing as a solo player as she is in a group situation, Agnel never capsizes her balanced improvisations during the many extreme - and exciting - moments on this CD. She also confirms that with timbres assembled in a distinctive manner, an acoustic keyboard can be a textural source as much as a mechanism for formal musical narratives."
KEN WAXMAN - JAZZ WORD 2009
"Sophie Agnel's 51 minutes of improvising at Les Instants Chavirés in November 2009 has a continuous lyric sweep. Concentrated for long passages in the piano's interior, it moves fluidly from reverberant echoing of strummed bass strings to rapid-fire keyboard phrases triggering prepared strings, then on to the most fragile, bell-like sounds at minimal volume. The liner asserts an absence of electronics and the CD is a transcription of a world both ethereal and insistently material, with Agnel altering the piano sound with the materials of contemporary industry, aluminium and plastic. There's nothing particularly new about what Agnel is doing, but she finds and mines a vein of very personal sonic poetry rooted in this exchange between inner and outer impulses and the special dialogues that arise around the status of materials. Agnel employs resonance to create a sense of timelessness, even when her work is polyrhythmic."
STUART BROOMER - POINT OF DEPARTURE 2010
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