The Tench label is definitely about quality more than quantity, with a mere seven releases over the last five years. All are worth attention. The last before the current release was Porya Hatami’s Shallow, over a year ago. The latest is from label head M. Ostermeier, and its title, Still, succinctly yet accurately captures its mood.
Listening to this album the first half dozen times I found myself having to repeatedly reorient my horizon of expectation despite the apparent consistency of its palette. The album opens with an oscillating hum, over which a slow piano meditation begins, soon accompanied by a background of small creaks and rustles. The sound put me in mind of the intimacy of Nils Frahm’s Felt, in which the creakings of the piano itself are an important presence that adds to the emotional intimacy. The piano presence on Still, however, soon turns out to be starker, more distant, more austerely and repetitively meditative. As the hum continues to anchor the track I begin to think more of Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s collaborations, in which the intersection of laptop and piano is explored. But this reference too passes. Despite the oscillating wave, the small scurryings, the piano figures, there is a deep stillness at the heart of the track captured in its title, “Stasis.” Single piano gestures cluster in patterns but the space between them precludes momentum; after a while I am reminded more of releases such as Kenneth Kirschner’s Twenty Ten or Thomas Köner’s Tiento de las Nieves, where each piano sound is held up for contemplation rather than taking its place in the moving walkway of melody.
The second track picks up almost seamlessly from the first, except that the hum departs and the rustlings and scrapings pick up pace, clearly much more now than mere environmental creaks and whispers. The balance of the elements is shifting. The piano is as stark as ever but behind it a small world of hurried motion flutters in parallel. The track is called “Division.” “Hang,” a brief interlude, keeps only the piano, which takes on a more plaintive voice. After the uncompromising starkness of the opening three tracks, I am ready for something to shift, and shift it does.
“Counterpoise” is hardly brash, but after the stillness that precedes it, it arrives with startling vivacity. An electronic pulse with a skittering beat replaces the piano, and at first it feels like the start of a different album, lighter and more motile. Before long, however, the piano is reintegrated, and so are the background tappings, but now clustered rhythmically and given varying dynamics, like a hesitant accompanist on a typewriter. Clicks and pops add to the unsteady rhythms, and the overall effect is quite delightful. “New Lights” drops the new electronic movement to a dappled whisper over which it explores more hopeful-sounding chords, before “Congruence” pairs the piano once more with a prominent hum. “Inertia” continues that hum and has small foreground sounds visit it – by now the sense of inversion is complete, as if the small background rustles of the first track have by now become the actual narrative. This is the longest track and it has returned us to a deep sense of stillness. The closing track, “Parity,” sounds more lugubrious than any track so far, ominous in tone, the piano questioning and leaving us hanging for a response before resolving on a resigned note and then fading out with the echo of a more ambiguous chord.
There is an almost mathematical sense of combinatorial possibilities about the whole album, as each track reveals subtly different combinations of a basic set of elements, adding and subtracting to create slight shifts of mood, pitting light against shadow, stillness against motion. Yet there is nothing mechanistic about the sounds, which evoke a contingent, human world and invite a meditative attentiveness to each note, each rattle, each resonance. It is an album that calls for patience and in return casts a slow spell, drawing the listener through a slowly shifting landscape of thoughtful sound. Another fine release from Tench, Still is recommended for close listening. Order it here.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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