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Edvard LIEBER (20th century)
Music to Paintings
Twenty-four De Kooning Preludes, based on paintings by Willem de Kooning (1978) [21.22]
Small Decoy, based on the painting Small Decoy by Marcelo Bonevardi (1979) [3.24] *
Prelude to Jackson Pollock’s "Autumn Rhythm" (1977) [1.00]
Homage to Franz Kline, based on the late paintings of Franz Kline (1977) [3.10]
Sea Wall, based on the painting Sea Wall by Edvins Strautmanis (1979) [2.20]
Bacchus, based on the 1976-79 Bacchus paintings by Elaine de Kooning (1979) [3.07]
Tomb of Hasegawa, based on the late paintings by Saburo Hasegawa (1979) [9.53] +
Edvard Lieber (piano, * prepared piano, + electronically altered piano)
+ Unnamed chorus and Shoko Tanaka (speaker)
rec. 24 August 1983, Recital Hall, State University of New York, Purchase, NY. ADD.
LABOR LAB 7020-2 [44.33]

Over a period of three years in the late 1970s Edvard Lieber created an intense set of piano works inspired by the painted media. He performs his complete output in this discipline here with a forthrightness and dedication that shows something of the strength he drew from the original imagery.

The works’ form is pared down to essentials, both in terms of content and length, with the brevity of the De Kooning Preludes making one think of each as a kind of musical haiku – the shortest is 31", the longest a comparatively substantial 1’28". Yet for all their individual brevity the pieces themselves form a challenging set. The disc’s title deliberately uses the word ‘music’, though much of the content would be just as aptly described as ‘sound art’, as its effect seems to be to create aural atmospheres in response to the various visual stimuli selected by Lieber.

As composer and pianist Lieber has an impressive pedigree – he studied the former with Xenakis, the latter with Horowitz, among others. Also active as a painter and film-maker (with a series of films on artists such as Bernstein, Cage, Rauschenberg, Warhol and de Kooning), this has led to him being called "An American Renaissance man [of] fearless individuality". His work is individual, though he is hardly alone in being a composer-artist: Schoenberg and Cage particularly come to mind – and one can sense Cage’s ghost most notably in Small Decoy and Tomb of Hasegawa. Indeed, all the works more generally reflect concerns in visual and music thought prevalent at the time in the United States.

Should anyone be unused to such aural challenges as are presented by this disc, the best starting point is the booklet. In his text David Giese takes the reader on a swift tour of composers through musical history whose work has been imbued with visual associations, painters that have contributed notable works on musical themes and composers who have responded to visual art. This is followed by notes on all the artists that concern us here, together with their relevant works, which are reproduced as monochrome illustrations. It’s a slight pity perhaps that the illustrations are not in colour, as one cannot see exactly how much correlation their might be between visual colours and subtleties of aural tones and textures. (Also note that some 24 endnotes are given to the main booklet text – making the whole appear more a miniature academic essay).

All of this is not entirely out of place with Lieber’s music, for there is much evidence that his response to the works is as much intellectually stimulated as springing from momentary reaction. In 1979 he claimed that he was "not aiming at a literal translation. I look at time as the canvas and sound as the paint". Any intellectually induced difficulty in this statement was probably only to his liking.

Each of the De Kooning Preludes addresses a different aspect of painterly technique – line (Ruth’s Zowie, #9), colour of pinks and yellows (Pastorale, #24) or their visual lyricism (Untitled, #6 and 15). Some also were coloured by a personal response to the subject themselves (Marilyn Monroe, #20). Musically the technique is an interconnection of tonality, atonality and serialism that is united by a wide variety of elaborate means (pedalling being the most obvious on first listening). The opening barrage of dense chords leads to suspended clouds and tranquil spaces that allow, I suspect, for reflection as well as purely technical playability.

Small Decoy employs both pre-recorded sounds played back into the prepared piano during performance to lend the overall timbre wooden and metallic facets that correspond to the materials found in Bonevardi’s work. Prelude to Jackson Pollock’s "Autumn Rhythm" responds to a visual spontaneity in the work. It also encapsulates intellectually the nine individual letters of Jackson Pollock’s name within a framework that appears innocently as a perpetuum mobile. Homage to Franz Kline is notably different in that the response appears purely architectural to Kline’s strongly figured blocks of pigment on the canvas. The apparently random use of fists on the keyboard to create great bursts of immutable sound – almost noise – results, however improbably, from careful mathematics and illustrative graphs in the score – perhaps the closest that Lieber comes to a total fusing of both the visual and the musical.

Edvins Strautmanis’ Sea Wall has at least some loose connection in terms of painterly technique with the work of Jackson Pollock. Both painted on the floor of their studio, but whereas Pollock preferred the liberal fluidity of action painting, Strautmanis stressed a finer textural quality, here achieved by using brooms to manipulate the paint – and it is the roughness of the bristle strokes that Lieber strives to capture, in addition to some impression of the visual composition.

De Kooning appears again, but this time Elaine’s work is the subject, and Bacchus himself looms large in the composition as Lieber employs a technique similar to the one he employed a year earlier in capturing Willem’s Preludes.

In terms of aural effect produced, the most haunting belongs to the longest single work contained here: Tomb of Hasegawa. Tumults of black sound, metamorphosed out of all recognition from those produced by a piano, the work seems more percussive in quality - and, as Bartók observed, the piano is essentially a percussive instrument. The beat predominates over conventional pianistic tone, which only makes sparing appearances. The choir too is changed, dehumanised almost. The speaker recites the Japanese text in a hushed, clipped voice before a general fading from sound to silence.

As music Lieber’s output is something that (depending on individual tastes) instantly appeals and demands an immediate replay or not. However, what he sets out to achieve cannot be instantly dismissed and merits investigation by those with a serious and dedicated interest in visual and/or musical thought.


Evan Dickerson

 

 



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