Review: Seth Horvitz – Eight Studies For Automatic Piano

As I expected coming into this release, it’s unusual to hear such an expressive, vibrant instrument, traditionally most effective when channelling the fluid and natural playing style of its performer, turned into an automatic performance machine. Eight Studies… flits between moments that are seemingly within a human’s technical capabilities to those that are undeniably outside it. Arguably, the release is most effective when exploring the latter, as it is during these moments that the listener is most strongly urged to question the piano’s most synonymous characteristics as an instrument, and their own presumptions about music and composition – it’s not so much the absence of imperfection in Eight Studies… that is so striking, but the actual presence of cold and mechanical perfection.

With this in mind, “Study No. 99: Strumming Machine” (an obvious tribute to Charlemagne Palestine’s “Strumming Music”) is the most noticeable piece on display here. The computerised dynamics and tempo – completely unwavering and devoid of human error – allows Horvitz to expand on Palestine’s idea very effectively, placing the same small selection of pitches under relentless rapid fire until the listener becomes numb to the piano’s timbre and attack. “Study No. 1: Octaves, Systematically Filled and Folded” is another piece that pushes commonplace perceptions of “piano music”; moving through pitches at an unnatural speed, and sometimes verging on a smooth glissando up through the octaves.

Four “forms” are explored throughout the record – idealized symmetrical form, constructed binary form, intuitive linear form and intuitive transformational form. It is by these forms that the piano is morphed from a musical instrument to a receptacle of mathematical process – a sonic testing lab, where calculations are brought to audial life, and the notion of “music” feels like a mere coincidental by-product. The album is said to have been recorded in an “immersive concert setting” – a teasing use of a location so tightly interweaved with the concepts of musical warmth and intimacy, asking the listener to question (along with the other questions already raised), what can be defined as a “live performance”, and what can be said to exist in the musical “now”. Great stuff.