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Ludovico Einaudi: Royal Albert Hall Concert; Fabrizio Paterlini: Fragments Found; Miina Virtanen: Autumn Stories

img  Tobias Fischer

You always assumed Ólafur Arnalds pioneered the extension of classical music into pop-territory? You thought Max Richter was the first to bridge the gap between the legacy of Phil Glass and Ambient? You were under the impression that Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir were singular in their blend of styles from different centuries? Time for a little history lesson: Luovico Einaudi was there long before them. After studying with leading avantgardist Luciano Berio in Milan and plenty of soulsearching, experimentation and pondering, Einaudi arrived at incisive conclusions about his relationship towards harmony, structure and composition at the end of the 1980s. Since then, he has developed and honed a style uniquely his own, for years working at the fringes of a music business blatantly disinterested in a music finding strength in silence and a media-landscape misplacing him into the New Age category. There simply wasn't a tag for this music yet, which seemed to exists in a time and place of its own and on the strength of the imagination of an artist, whose words were as carefully measured as his oeuvre and did not serve the puerile needs of marketing departments. Which is probably why Einaudi, thanks to a couple of successful soundtrack commissions, was rather known in the realms of film aficionados than music fans and through his sheet music, which made for a wonderful alternative to the stereotypical etudes and Chopin-waltzes on the menu of piano students worldwide.

Today, of course, the situation has drastically changed. Not only has Einaudi long made it into the upper echelons of the musical establishment, signed a record deal with the renowned Decca-imprint, thereby cementing his position as a wanderer between the worlds of classical and contemporary music, and built a faithful fan base passionately devoted to his cause. Not only can he, as The Royal Albert Hall Concert effectively proves, sell out venues typically reserved for the superstars of Rock and Pop. He also commands respect from the most diverse corners of the creative spectrum - from purists to the outskirts of the electronic music community, the latter of whom have come to regard his work as a logical continuation of Brian Eno and Harald Budd's collaborational forrays into mood and space as well as a contemporary vision of what chamber music could and should sound like in the 21st century. It is therefore anything but surprising that Einaudi, on last year's Nightbook, shared the studio with Robert and Ronald Lippok of German Post-Electronica-trio To Rococo Rot and asked Robert as well as Alva Noto's Carsten Nicolai to rework two of his new pieces for a free-to-download remix-EP. If there was, obvious stylistic differences aside, an important element uniting their aesthetics, it was surely that the line of influence for contemporary forms of expression dates back far further into the past than the 20th century. And that, in a time when it seems to have lost its relevance, classical music in a way has been given a unique chance for renewal. Rather than cutting themselves off from the proud lineage of Western composition or blindly submitting themselves to its dictate, they were discovering it as a means of sharing one of the most precious goods: Intimacy.

It is easy to see why Einaudi should today come to be regarded as something of a godfather for the Neo-Classical movement and, truth be told, if one were merely to listen blindfold to the two audio-CDs of this luxuriously packaged fold-out double-CD and DVD set, the similarities are indeed striking: There's the same emphasis on mood and fragility. A conflation of harmonic and melodic elements into a single texture, in which both are interchangeable, complementary and in a constant state of flux. The focus on the traditional small-scale piano and string ensemble, with the former mostly acting as pulse and melodic lead and the latter as harmonic backing and a body for thematic responses. And, finally, the integration of elements from the world of popular music, signified here by the inclusion of electric bass, frame drum and acoustic guitar - aptly, the gig at the Royal Albert Hall gets off to a flying start, as the band launch furiously into the supple groove and cascading chord-cycles of „Lady Labyrinth“.  And yet, it would both feel like a major disservice and a historical injustice of subsuming Einaudi into the genre right at a point when he has successfully corrected the pervasive impression of constituting nothing more than an updated minimalist. In reality, his compositions both precede Neo-Classical tendencies and extend beyond them – which simultaneously awards them a chance of retaining their value long after the current trend has faded.

There are two major qualities which set Einaudi apart from the fold. Firstly, an unrivaled inventiveness in terms of arrangement. Although his pieces cater to a cornucopia of different emotions, he has never made it a secret that he enjoys working with and within a single sound. The Royal Albert Hall Concert openly acknowledges this and even manages to use this seeming limitation to its advantage, as tracks seamlessly segue in and out of each other here, as though being part of an interrelated symphonic suite. Some of them are nothing more than endlessly repeating chord progressions pushed forward on the strength of tiny shifts in accent and a highly effective use of dynamics – on a piece like aforementioned „Lady Labyrinth“, which blends organically into the title track to the Nightbook-album, the band build epic tension arches of all but silent and static passages and euphoric outbursts, euphorically sweeping the audience along with them. In an extended section in the second half of the gig comprised of „Berlin Song“ or „Melodia Africana I“, meanwhile, Einaudi showcases his lyrical talents, hinting at, albeit it never outwardly paying homage to, the vocabulary of the romantics and impressionists – these are, essentially, songs without words played by a man who openly confesses that words are probably least of all suited to expressing emotions. And then, there are compositions which play with microscopic melodic particles passed around from one instrument to the next and subtle variations gradually pulling the music from a clearly defined point of departure to an uncertain future. It is on the latter category especially, that Einaudi puts his theoretical training to its most exciting use – it is hard to imagine a protagonist of  the new generation of „intutive“ musicians coming up with an arousing journey like „Primavera“, which runs the gamut from delicate moodwork to ebullient punches of broken chords, evoking associations with the passionate string work of Vivaldi.

Einaudi's second unique selling point is the inclusion of electronics into his set in a way that far extends beyond the hypnotically revolving piano loop on the introductory „The Planets“: On stage, tellingly, the interaction between him and Robert Lippok, as visually unassuming as it may be, is certainly far more incisive for the overall effect of the music as the contribution of the acoustic ensemble. This is perhaps most clearly audible on a piece like „In Principio“, in which the synths literally provide for an engaging context for the piano's outwardly simplistic inventions to unfold and resonate in. But it equally applies to the fulminate and sinister finale of „Bye Bye Mon Amour“, which sees Lippok erecting cathedral spaces filled with desolation and sorrow. Just as in his movie scores, none of the two layers of the experience can be separated from the other, both informing and questioning each other. The tender ambiances and experimental abstractions seem to take the music even further down where it already inherently aspires to: A realm of intuition, where the shapeless and subconscious take prevalence over the tangible and planned. Rather than presenting his audience with a clear-cut emotional statement, Einaudi forces them to deal with ambivalence and confusion – emotions often associated with the mythical, but which here take on an entirely earthy and human face. The dialogue with Lippok is an open form of mediating between these poles – and an expression of the composer's commitment to develop his music organically. Electronics and acoustics may represent different shores, but they still belong to the very same river, flowing constantly and peacefully from a majestic past into a wide-open future.


With this inviting and liberating approach, Einaudi has turned into an inspiration for a new generation of artists discovering classical music as a beacon of constancy and continuity in a time of continuous change. Fabrizio Paterlini certainly takes no issue if people see parallels between his work and that of the Turin-born composer: „His works surely were an inspiration at first, I spent a lot of time studying and playing his music some years ago. Sometimes, my music is compared to his - especially my first album, Viaggi in aeromobile. But this is far from being annoying, as Einaudi’s music is certainly a peak of excellence in our category.“ Still today, the elegance, grace and fluidity of his compositions reveal a shared sense of aesthetics, of regarding a lightness of touch as perfectly reconcilable with profundity of emotion and depth. And yet, on Fragments Found, his third full-length after, among others, an experimental EP and a collection of remixes, Paterlini has decidedly outgrown the comparisons: His harmonies are more lush, his compositions more concise than ever, his sound  entirely focused on the cool, crystalline timbre of his Piano, amalgamating music from at least two centuries: With their weightless, ethereal quality, Paterlini's compositions constantly border Ambient – an impression further reinforced by his ingenious use of the pedal, which, as he put it himself, doesn't just add sustain to his notes, but actually envelopes the entire composition in a soft cloud of space; their rich harmonic language firmly roots them in the vocabulary of the Impressionists; the sparsity of the one-man-and-his-instrument-setting hints at the conventions of classical music recitals. And yet, they are none of the above, but always all at the same time.

This inner complexity, which notably contrasts the surfatial calm and purity of his pieces, may also explain why Paterlini's public profile is still relatively low-key. Rather than spelling things out in full, he is hinting at them. Instead of answering questions, he is posing new ones. And far from merely pleasing his audience, he intends to take them on a journey, even on an ephemeral two-minute miniature. The challenging aspects of his style have however somewhat obscured the fact that Paterlini is blessed with of the most natural and effortless talents for melody on the scene. His script is far more poetic  than that of many of his colleagues, who have reverted to a sort of consciously unsensual style for fear of coming across as shallow and trivial. The reason why Paterlini is capable of avoiding these pitfalls while nonetheless working firmly within the realms of traditional tonality, lies in the seemingly simple but factually unique gift of playing exactly the right note at exactly the right time. At some of the most memorable moments on Fragments Found, a line will suddenly, out of the blue, jump up an octave, piercing one's heart where it hurts the most.

With these heartwrenching surprises constantly hiding around the bend, he can even sustain the tension on a piece like closer „Still Travelling“, which, on paper, just keeps on circling around the same chords for four minutes. On other occasions, meanwhile, Paterlini shows himself a master at building extended arches as a demonstrative counterpoint to the minimalist ideal – such as on „Controvento, senz'olio“, which features the kind of neverending melody someone like Wagner might have dreamt of. With ten tracks of dreamy piano without any accompaniment, one might be inclined to expect this to be a rather lulling affair. The contrary is true, however, as the album rips through the corridors of a mind ornamented with exactly the kind of scenes, images and stories the titles, dealing with „frozen lakes“ or „The giant and the ballerina“ are alluding to. Paterlini has mentioned that he does intend to force electronics on his arrangements, but to wait for them to suggest themselves in a natural way. And why should he? As Fragments Found proves, there is plenty of potential in this pure approach yet.

coverThe music of Miina Virtanen, meanwhile, is a perfect example of how the term Neo-Classical, as problematic as it may be on the one hand, has managed to unite different communities, rather than alienating them, on the other: Despite obvious similarities in terms of sound and mood, her style is both a counterpoint and contrast to Einaudi's and Paterlini's. After finishing her studies in Germany, Virtanen moved back to her native Finland last year and set up a practise for music therapy, working with patients to both improve their physical functionality and psychological condition. The return may not have had the kind of transformational effect one might have expected, since Virtanen had never lost touch with her home - recording, among others, a full-length album of Finish Folk with singer and violinist Pia Repo. And yet, it has at least outwardly, re-aligned her oeuvre with the pulse of nature and the beauty of solitary forests and lakesides. At the same time, it would be trivial to relate both her pristine and ethereal sound as well as the title to her new album, Autumn Stories, to the brittle and pure countryside of the Finish hinterland. It would also be inadequate: Not only does Virtanen perform and record her pieces without any kind of conceptual connotations, adding titles only after the sessions are finished. She also draws from a remarkably varied and international palette. The colour play of Debussy may be heard in some of her more associative moments, the hypnotic circling around a single thematic and harmonic center akin to Satie or the simultaneity of movement and stillness which one can observe in the work of Arvo Pärt.

All of these comparisons are nonetheless going nowhere, however, as Virtanen has created a style entirely her own, based on a conclusive combination of improvisation and composition. When recording an album like Autumn Stories, her only preparations will consist in preparing sketches of ideas and motives, which she will then bring to fruition in the moment. At the same time, if she feels it will benefit the music, she will go back to a particular idea and define it in more detail before re-submitting it to a new round of variations. The consequences are twofold: For one, almost all of the tracks contained here are based on an extremely reduced amount of parameters, deepening the set of their expressive powers over the course of a piece's duration. And secondly, that sculpting a flow always takes prevalence. On a piece like „Starflights over the Sea“, all that is essentially happening is Virtanen delicately keeping the music alive by sending it through a funnel of ferocious clusters and passages of relative quietude, in which she rebuilds the momentum. Intensity of  performance is her highest priority, even compared to factors like rhythmical smoothness, precision and accuracy in terms of pitch. At the beginning of „Frost I“, for example, she all but hammers out a smattering of stunningly atonal notes in the midst of an otherwise entirely harmonic surrounding. An yet, it is this very impulsiveness, this sense of roughness and immediacy, which awards the work its air of urgency and undeniability, demanding attention and constantly pulling listeners from their comfort zone.

Perhaps twenty two tracks of these streams of consciousness are a bit too much in objective terms. Yet the abundance of material suggests that linearly listening your way through this album is not the best way to appreciate it. Instead, Autumn Stories invites its audience to dive in and out of its riverbed, of finding individual paths and creating personal narratives. The same applies to Virtanen's work as a whole, which, in its very essence, is always an undiluted expression of the human condition. That may not make it popular anytime soon. But as the example of Ludovico Einaudi proves, time will eventually put these things straight.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ludovico Einaudi
Homepage: Decca Classics
Homepage: Fabrizio Paterlini
Homepage: Fabrizio Paterlini Records
Homepage: Miina Virtanen
Homepage: Miina Virtanen's Autumn Stories at iTunes

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