Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers

[this review published on I care if you listen.]
Lisa Moore, Piano and Sampling Keyboard
Music by Annie Gosfield
2011 Cantaloupe Music

This EP’s titular composition, composed in 2008, refers to a telegraph operator.  The metaphor is apt, as the piece is heavily charged with energy currents both active and awaited.  Lisa Moore performs the three tracks of Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers on a keyboard controlling the Native Instruments Kontakt sampler, while simultaneously playing a Steinway D, producing an engaging industrial process balanced with a wide range of expressive piano timbres.  The sampler is well adjusted to produce raw, sine and sawtooth-like sounds more reminiscent of oscillators from the early days of electronic music.  The first track, “With enthusiasm and a little violence,” opens with an assault from the sampler outlining a stark tonic – dominant – tonic loop.  The piano joins in with ominous trills and accented dissonant chords, and the keyboard triggers samples of prepared piano, plucked in such a way as to evoke the sound of an Oriental zither. Digital blips begin to pepper the texture, as if Kraftwerk plays pinball nearby. The sampler’s abstract loop fades out so that piano voices can be explored more fully, combining samples of extended techniques (strumming, etc.) with standard live playing.  Gosfield eschews the dense tone clusters of many contemporary composers and employs a language of short frenetic melodies and simple pitch sets, placed freely in time, so that the piano speaks and meditates, rather than singing.

The second track, “Languid and Layered,” is built upon a continuous drone of the sampler, effected by pitch envelopes to produce a buzzing sound like a pond full of tiny croaking frogs.  As in the first track, this element is removed so that the piano can state an enigmatic musical haiku.

“Machine-like, but with some groove” opens with the same sinister electronic loop of the first track.  Here there is some dialogue between the piano and sampler; they imitate each other, find common ground.  When the piano adopts the square rhythm of the sampler, which is punctuated by bursts of white noise, a groove indeed ensues.  As before, though, the piano insists on being heard alone, spinning triplets up and down the keyboard.  When the sampler occasionally returns, it is as a tutti of charged metallic outbursts.  The piano gets the last word, unencumbered by “process,” able to ejaculate one final tantrum, which in the silence that ensues seems indeed a “dead ringer.”

The telegraph is a dinosaur of technology, and this album jacket’s black-and-white photo of Annie Gosfield, made up as a ‘40s telephone operator complete with bobbed hair and earphones, reinforces the idea of a modern industrial past.  The piece could well be used as a soundtrack for Chaplin’s semi-silent masterpiece Modern Times.  While women composers have certainly transcended their historical under-representation, Gosfield here seeks admirably to cement their place in the pantheon of industrial composers.

The final track, “Brooklyn, October 5, 1941” (1997) for piano with baseballs and catcher’s mitt, is inspired by the Dodgers/Yankees Subway Series of that year.  Here, the historical context is less obvious.  This was an era that saw the birth pangs of bebop, and the experimental extended techniques (rolling, rubbing, and striking of the keys, strings and soundboard with baseball and mitt) sound like anything but the fluid scales and arpeggios of Parker and Gillespie, and even less do they evoke the ballet of Joe DiMaggio.  This is, once again, industrial music for its own sake, Lisa Moore belching out the extremes of the piano’s textural, timbral potential, as if presaging the imminence of the atomic age.

Of the two compositions on this CD, Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers is clearly more engaging, aesthetically and intellectually.  Moore turns the duet between sampler and Steinway into an intriguing dialectic.  While the former produces a tightly-structured temporal space, she employs the latter to reclaim a more personal psychic space with agogic flexibility and liberal use of rubato.  Plucked, scratched piano strings evoke the brittleness of bone, and electric sonic distortion can point either to a dystopic future or, more likely, to the lost innocence of early modernity.

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