Erik Griswold: Ecstatic Descent
On this single-track, forty-one-minute recording, Erik Griswold's kaleidoscopic material ripples, sparkles, and flutters like sunlight reflecting off a water's surface, the ear constantly dazzled by a plethora of pianistic detail. Working within the prepared-piano tradition, the contemporary classical composer realized Ecstatic Descent by first altering every note of the piano with bolts, screws, cardboard, paper, and rubber and then executing the piece in real time.
As captivating as the resultant piano sounds are, he's hardly the first artist to have modified a keyboard in such a manner; what more recommends the work is what he did beyond converting the instrument into “a miniature percussion orchestra.” While a strict compositional structure is in place, the piece was also designed to accommodate improvisation as the performer, Griswold in this case, works his way downwards from the very top of the piano using animated, unpredictable clusters of incredible density as building blocks.
Originally a San Diego resident who now calls Brisbane, Australia home, Griswold drew for inspiration for the piece from both the ‘multidirectional' playing of free jazz figures such as Cecil Taylor or Rashied Ali and the sounds of nature where in Heraclitean manner patterns might appear to repeat but never do so in quite the same way twice. Such ideas manifest themselves in Ecstatic Descent in the extremely rapid attack he applies to the work's first half especially, an effect that dizzies and dazzles the listener in equal measure.
Tinkling brightly during its opening moments, the piece gradually opens up as Griswold expands the range of notes by adding lower pitches to the higher. In this initial stage, the spidery skeins of doctored piano patterns might be likened to multiple music boxes (or even thumb pianos) playing simultaneously and each sourcing a different range of pitches. Though Ecstatic Descent is, formally speaking, a single-movement work, two distinct parts declare themselves, with the incessant activity of the first part markedly different from the second, where the playing is interrupted by extended pauses and the focus shifts to the natural decay of the instrument. The change happens abruptly, too, with the sound mass coming to a sudden stop at the halfway mark, the patterns appearing thereafter as subdued, unfurling expressions.
Whereas many a composition blossoms from modest beginnings into a dynamic, full-bodied construction that culminates in a grand climax, Griswold's piece does the opposite: opening dynamically, the material gradually slows as if energy is slowly draining from it. In this regard, its entropic design mirrors life in the way it progresses from the high spirits of youth to the ebbing away of energy during one's final moments. It's such details that ultimately give the work its distinguishing character more than its prepared piano treatments, as interesting, soundwise, as they are.