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Gustavo DÍAZ-JEREZ (b.1970)
Metaludios II: Books 4 & 5
Gustavo Diaz-Jerez (piano)
rec. 21-23 December 2020, Auditorium of Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
IBS CLASSICAL IBS172021 [70:36]

I owe considerable thanks to my colleague at MWI, Richard Hanlon, whose review of Díaz-Jerez’ last release, Maghek, first drew my attention to this very special Spanish composer. Anyone who enjoyed that stirring collection of symphonic poems inspired by the composer’s native Canary Islands as much as I did need only be informed that the music on this new recording is just as good and may even be better. Superb though Díaz-Jerez’ handling of the orchestra was in the symphonic poems, you can tell that the piano is his instrument through and through. It is always illuminating to have a composer’s own thoughts on his music not least when the composer’s playing is as accomplished as it is here.

As far back as Aristotle and Pythagoras, music and maths and science have had fruitful interactions with each other. Bach as well as a great composer was also both master of the technical art of counterpoint and an expert of the mechanics of organ buildings, but he was also fascinated by music’s relationships to things like the Fibonacci Sequence. Whilst Diaz-Jerez insists that he is a musician first, he clearly takes a great deal of inspiration from mathematics and the sciences. It says a lot about how much the Romantic ideal of the creative artist lingers on in popular imagination that we have no trouble with a composer being inspired by a seascape or a mountain but are troubled if his creativity is fired by the natural wonders of prime numbers. I am not particularly interested in mathematics myself but I found again and again that this music passed the innocent ear test. In other words, you don’t need to understand the maths to enjoy it any more than you need to understand the rules of a fugue to appreciate Bach.

The description used for these pieces, Metaludios, is a coinage of the composer’s. As he puts it: “The word Metaludio is derived from the [Greek] prefix meta-, “beyond” and the suffix –ludio, from the Latin ludēre, “to play”, “to exercise”.”

Rather than just poetic evocations of a given subject in the manner of a Grieg Lyric Piece or one of the Debussy Préludes, this double theme of play and of playfully extending the limits of musical play is crucial to this music. There are now 5 books of Metaludios with a sixth promised and the composer has previously recorded the first three books.

The final Metaludio of Book 4 gives a good taste of what this kind of playing beyond the limits sounds like. Its inspiration comes from the work of the rather wonderful Canarian sculptor, Martin Chiniro, who makes metal spirals designed to capture something of the wind and the Atlantic which dominate those islands. All the music has its origin in recordings of the sculptor’s own voice and of him hammering metal. Some of these recordings are used here as ghostly samples or as percussive crashes but otherwise they have been electronically transcribed into notes for the pianist to perform, either traditionally at the keyboard or using extended techniques inside the piano. If this all sounds like a jargonistic mess, the results are anything but. It is a powerful portrait of a landscape already explored by the composer in Maghek but here in the form of a haunting, poetic piano piece that is as strange as it is wonderful.

In some ways, the most intriguing and potentially alarming piece is Hidden Ways. Sifting through the technical language, my understanding is that the composer fed all the previous Metaludios into a computer and the Google Brain software analysed them, ‘learnt’ from them and then produced three compositions based on what it had ‘learnt’. I put ‘learn’ in quotation marks as I do not believe that what the software is doing here is genuine learning in the human sense, but is in fact very skilful mimicry. That said, it seems to me a stimulating extension of the aleatory approaches of composers like Penderecki and Cage. As the composer notes, what we hear is a new piece of music in effect, suffused with the memory of the music which preceded it.

In case anyone is beginning to feel that this is all taking itself a bit too seriously, the final piece, Belphegor’s Prime, reminds us that all this music is based on play. We need to keep in mind that asking Google to write a piece of music is a game. Belphegor’s Prime is a number ripe with devilish associations from repetitions of the number 13 to the inclusion of the number of the Beast 666 in its mathematical expression. (Belphegor is one of the seven lords of Hell in Hebrew cosmology.) Whilst every aspect of the music, whether harmonic, melodic or rhythmic, is derived from this prime (don’t ask me how!), the resultant music has a satisfying whiff of sulphur about it. I would imagine it was the kind of piece Liszt would be writing if he were writing today.

Not all of these pieces are scientific or mathematical in terms of subject matter. The mermaid myth of Melusine, or Melussyne as she is here, is the starting point for Book 5 No.1 and the Aztec weather god Stribog is given a ferocious portrait in Book 4 No.4. Whilst these myths are what the pieces are about, the techniques used are Díaz-Jerez’ potent blend of the traditional, the spectral and the mathematical. Both of these pieces perfectly incapsulate that there is nothing arbitrary or contrived or unmusical about Díaz-Jerez’ way of composing.

An obvious point of comparison, it seems to me, are the Ligeti Etudes which, in recent years, have been getting the recognition they deserve as some of the most innovative piano works of the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. Only time will tell if Díaz-Jerez’ games will prove to be their successors but right now I have to say that I believe they will. Their significance, in many ways, is irrelevant next to the amount of pleasure I have had from these fruits of Díaz-Jerez’ exceptionally fertile imagination. This music is the opposite of dry abstraction or random noise. I can only suggest that the sceptical listener tries the delectable scherzo Díaz-Jerez constructs from the sounds made by mice in Book 4 No.3. As he mentions in his instructive and enjoyable notes, if Messiaen can incorporate birdsong into his music why not mice? It is ear ticklingly good fun!

David McDade