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Nunu Kiefer: Nunu

img  Tobias Fischer

In Alain Robbe-Grillet novel La Jalousie, situated on a plantation in a French colony, a jealous husband suspects his wife of cheating on him with their neighbour. Again and again, he is mulling over the facts in his mind, thinking back to situations when he has seen the two together. The tiniest of details – the serpentine movements of a centipede on the wall of their house, returning like a ghostly memory throughout the narrative – are elevated to the status of Leitmotifs and the blinds (French: jalousies), used in the entire apartment in lieu of doors, through which the protagonist is trying to observe his wife's every movement, create a world in which there can be no definitive answers, merely opaque views into a surreal half-light. Absolute truth and absurdity are closely related here, as objective reality is gradually being replaced with the inner cosmos of the observer, in which facts and fantasy can no longer be disentangled. And yet, what starts out as a deeply unsettling and disturbing journey into the mind of a man possessed, takes on an almost meditative quality towards the end, when the continuous arrival and departure of images creates a hazy narrative kaleidoscope, whose slow, hypnotic rotation slows down the rate of change to a dream pulse.

In a way, Nunu Kiefer's debut album is marked by similar processes and comparable contradictions. On the one hand, Kiefer is creating an almost voyeuristic sense of intimacy on these seven miniatures for solo piano, a nakedness which at times makes one feel as though one were spying on her through a keyhole. On the other, she has decided to keep her identity hidden behind the nom de plume of „nunu“, with neither her myspace account nor the label's website revealing much about her personal and creative background – which we'll respect here, although a quick google search will easily identify her as a classically trained pianist and composer with a remarkably wide spectrum of musical interests. Paradoxically, too, the booklet first identifies all tracks here as „free improvisations“, then goes on to claim that they were „written and composed“ by Kiefer. And just like La Jalousie constituted an extremely condensed cosmos, creating a tight web of associations and connections over the course of barely one hundred pages, the seemingly puny nineteen minutes of her self-titled debut feel, to put it in the words of Arvo Pärt, like one of these second-short radio jingles, in whose fragmentary body an entire lifespan seems to unfold.

As soon as one presses play, however, the seeming opposites instantly dissolve. Self-forgotten reverie and minutely planned deliberation are stemming from the same source here, as these improvisations truly feel, as the cliche wants it, like instant composition. Each piece starts out with a simple motive, a melody, a chord progression or pattern, and then unfolds through a string of variations on the opening bars. While the left hand keeps repeating the same accompaniment throughout the entire track in a melancholy ostinato, the right hand sets out on a journey, adding a note here and subtracting another there, protracting the tempo in one instant and subtly speeding it up again in another, lyrically enriching the main motive or chopping it up into its constituents to then re-assemble it from scratch, reverse it, re-invent it or rhythmically re-accentuate it. In many cases, this involves a slow movement from the mid-register of the keyboard to its upper extremes, to the point where the instrument's timbre is turning metallic and crystalline, as though the music were being played on stalactites of ice inside an igloo. Throughout, however, as much as they are going their own ways, Kiefer's two hands are also joined together at the hips like Siamese twins – at times, one suspects them being so close they are bound to touch. It is precisely this closeness, this blending of rhythmical accompaniment and melodic invention, which lends the music its weightless, floating quality and, thanks to the absence of powerful bass tonics, its quality of inwardness.

Significantly, one of the tracks is called „serce polska“ („Polish heart“) and perhaps this is not just to be understood as a faintly disguised indication of the artist's nationality, but as a discrete hint to the musician who has most likely more than any other put Poland on the musical map: Fryderyk Chopin. In many moments, after all, Kiefer's variations take on the same quality of rubato-playing – slight deviations in the right-hand rhythm from the steady pulse in the left – which are characteristic of many Chopin compositions and which have become essential in their creation of a sense of drifting and detachment from the stringent routine of thematic presentation and development: Rather than rushing through the circle of fifths with maniacal intensity, the music instead seeks to savour each phrase to the full – and then it simply ends. Contrary to her famous compatriot, Kiefer eschews virtuosity, with her carefully and diligently acquired classical education folding in on itself and being reduced to the bare essentials: Tone, touch and timbre. She appears to lay her very soul into each single note, trying to savour its uniqueness rather than its functional value inside a system of signs and symbols. No wonder that, in this world of tender movements and full focus on nuances, harmonic modulation (as on „chocolat“, whose ABA structure may constitute a sort of implicit reference to the sonata form) or the gradual transition from nostalgic minor mode to consoling major finale („alb“), which would pass by all but unnoticed in any conventional piece, register as abrupt and touching romantic ruptures here.

None of this has the appearance of someone lost inside jealous thoughts. Quite on the contrary, the insistence on going over the same idea again and again resembles the way one would think back to one's first date with a beloved one. Unlike Robbe-Grillet, Nunu Kiefer is not trying to exorcise the moment to make the pain go away – she is begging it to stay alive and preserve its magic forever.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Nunu Kiefer
Homepage: Schole Records

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