Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi: Here (And There)
Here (And There) is billed as “music for piano and electronics,” and while such a description certainly doesn't misrepresent the recording, it's first and foremost a piano album featuring the considerable talents of Canadian-born Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi. Though her repertoire encompasses works ranging from the Renaissance era to the present, this Innova release finds her championing the works of six modern composers, all of whom created the material on the recording with Astolfi in mind.
The opening piece, “Crystal Springs,” by Phillip Schroeder (also the album's producer), uses a number of elements to evoke the rugged sprawl of the titular Arkansas setting, most obviously the dense clusters that Astolfi generates as a base for a sparser series of statements. Throughout the ten-minute piece, Schroeder skillfully and subtly complements her playing with electronically manipulated sounds sourced from an electric bass, suspended cymbal, and the inside of a piano, the latter audible in the crystalline strums that lend the material an incandescent and even ethereal air. Sensitivity abounds, not only in the pianist's handling of the material but in the careful balance struck between the foreground and background elements. Following it is Ed Martin's “Swirling Sky,” which distinguishes itself immediately from Schroeder's setting in its usage of micro-tonality and uses as its inspirational starting-point the mutating patterns of drifting clouds one observes whilst lying on the grass.
Martin's piece archieves a density that at times verges on overwhelming, which makes the subsequent piece, Jeff Herriott's “green is passing,” a veritable study in contrast when it presents a pulseless reverie of severely reduced character. Notes are minimal in number, the spaces between them generous, and electronics are once again a factor but subtly so, with electronic reverb deployed as a near-subliminal tint that echoes off of Astolfi's notes. Rather more unsettling by comparison is Brian Belet's “Summer Phantoms: Nocturne,” which adjusts Schroeder's balance so that the piano and accompanying elements are equally emphasized. Though Belet composed the piano music first and only included marginal annotations for the electronics, the latter—processed string scrapes, hand-dampened tones, soundboard strikes, and other expanded piano tones—functions as an integral part of the work's cryptic sound-world. The key word here is definitely phantoms, as Belet and Astolfi collectively conjure a nocturnal set-piece of goblinesque grotesquerie into being.
If Brahms seems to be peeking through the initial flourishes of Tom Lopez's “Confetti Variations,” it's no accident: in this most collagistic of the album's pieces, the composer conceived of the work as a mashup of Brahms and Morton Feldman, with Astolfi wending a circuitous path through eighteen minutes of fireworks, explosions, and thunderstorms. Though its concluding Feldman-esque minutes are suitably minimalistic, “Confetti Variations” is often a wild ride that keeps the pianist on her toes as she tries to avoid being thrown off course by the left turns Lopez repeatedly throws in her way.
Arresting in its own way is Jim Fox's “The pleasure of being lost,” which overlays Astolfi's elegant playing with a spoken word text (one Fox freely adapted from the journals of nineteenth-century naturalist and world traveler Joseph Dalton Hooker) delivered in hushed manner by Janyce Collins. With the pianist's lyrical phrases augmented by the bell-like shimmer of electronically processed sounds, a sense of serenity and calm attends the piece in a manner that's not unwelcome, coming as it does after the Lopez collage. Fox's setting, like the album in general, provides an excellent example of what can happen when a pianist of Astolfi's calibre explores the sonic possibilities that electronic enhancements can bring to a compositional work.