What instrument has proven itself more useful to composers and musicians than the keyboard? A veritable laboratory of musical experimentation and an endless source of creativity and reinvention, the keyboard has been the instrument of choice for composers from Bach to Cage. In celebration of this titan of the music world, Bachtrack has dedicated itself this January to the piano. With February’s Technology Month approaching as well, the recent “Beyond My Piano” festival in Paris is a perfect synthesis of these two elements.

Brandt Bauer Frick © Nico Stinghe & Park Bennett
Brandt Bauer Frick
© Nico Stinghe & Park Bennett

The distinctiveness of this festival lies in the element of adventure and discovery in the eclectic musicians brought together. Ranging from classical and jazz to electro and even techno, the festival’s musicians are united by one central theme: the piano, and in particular their own method of going “beyond” the instrument. Vanessa Wagner and Murcof; Bojan Z; Francesco Tristano; and Aufgang and Brandt Brauer Frick are all musicians from different corners of the music world. Over several days, each was asked to display their vision of the instrument and their ideas for surpassing its perceived stylistic limitations.

Festival organiser Joachim Olaya wanted to show how these artists use the instrument to go above and beyond the usual sounds and timbres: Vanessa Wagner, a highly acclaimed French classical pianist, collaborated with Murcof, a Mexican electronica musician, in seeking to shift the instrument into another soundworld. Rather than straying from her traditional repertoire of Satie, Cage, Feldman, Pärt, Glass and Adams, her journey “beyond the piano” is based on altering the aural experiences through the modulation of sounds and space. Bojan Z, a Franco-Serbian jazz pianist whose music is nourished by classical, Brazilian, Balkan folk and rock music, approaches the piano as a canvas upon which he is able to blend any and all inspirations. A festival clearly in search, then, of broadening the piano’s horizons, and with Aufgang and Brandt Brauer Frick on the programme, I hoped it would also broaden mine.

Francesco Tristano, a classically trained soloist and a member of the eclectic trio Aufgang (with Rami Khalifé and Aymeric Westrich), believes that live electronic music is a real development – an opinion clearly demonstrated by the group’s synthesis of a keyboard’s established physical qualities and the endless possibilities that remain to be discovered. The piano can be more than just a fixed means to a fixed end – it can be an infinitely variable instrument. Tristano and Khalifé, also classically trained, are clearly both masters of the keyboard, be it under a classical or more popular guise. Aufgang performed both alone and in collaboration with Brandt Brauer Frick, and they certainly demonstrated a thought process situated beyond that of the traditional physical and sound limitations of the concert piano.

For Brandt Brauer Frick, a piano is not only an instrument, but “an entire realm of imagination, made up of infinite potentials and memories”. On paper, BBF has a unique selling point: techno music without the technology. More precisely, repetitive rhythmic music played on traditional (classical) acoustic instruments, namely vibraphone, percussion, brass, strings, guitar, bass, and of course piano – undoubtedly an intriguing pitch.

However, none of these acoustic instruments were present on stage for Brandt Brauer Frick’s concert, which was puzzling and ultimately highly disappointing. Left with a drum kit and a table of DJ electronics and synthesizers, BBF produced a concert resembling more an Ibizan rave than the innovative musicality I had been expecting. Rather than attempting to surpass the stereotypical clichés of electronic music by displaying the genre’s musical values, for these values do exist, BBF simply fell back into a droning repetition of samples and synthesizer noises. Techno music is, in many ways, a modern-day sibling of a distant minimalism, focused on small musical/rhythmic ideas, repeated over time and gradually transformed until we are finally faced with a fully orchestrated theme, before being brought to a musical climax. It is, though, difficult to see in this instance how BBF went “beyond” the piano.

Thankful I was, therefore, for the presence of Aufgang. Armed with two pianos, synthesizers and a live drummer, the musicians offered an exhilarating interpretation of several of BBF’s compositions including Bop and Teufelsleiter, using the acoustic keyboards to their full potential, even plucking the strings in order to create a unique blend of rhythms.

The idea of a concert designed to showcase musicians capable of uniting instruments with a soundworld foreign to their original conception is indeed appealing: as clearly indicated in the programme, Brandt Brauer Frick are described as a group unique in their ability to adapt acoustic classical instruments to more electronic and technological musical contexts. Despite the excellent musical performance by Aufgang, I left somewhat disappointed, purely because I had not witnessed the enormously promising concert I had been told to expect.