Xenia Pestova is a pianist who actively promotes and performs new works of music. Additionally, she is the Head of Performance at the Bangor University School of Music in North Wales [and a contributor to I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, Ed.] Her Innova release, Shadow Piano: Music For Piano/Toy Piano & Electronics, features pieces by several contemporary composers, all of whom Pestova states in the liner notes she is “fortunate to call [her] friends.”
Shadow Piano generally seems to evoke a dark and dreamlike state of mind, and I felt the autumnal imagery of the album photography helped to enhance this. Pestova’s description of the album as “A toy piano in the woods: life, death, and memory” seems appropriately fitting. Its title is derived from Andrew Lewis’s piece Schattenklavier which includes quotations of Stockhausen’s Gruppen—another tribute to the German composer by Pestova (who also made a recording of Mantra with pianist Pascal Meyer).
The sparse arrangements help to show Pestova’s performance of the rather diverse pieces. The tense and dissonant opening track, On The Impossibility of Reflection, primarily a piano piece with added electronic elements that really served to highlight some of the details of the piece. The toy piano’s unique timbre shines on Lou Bunk’s minimalistic Being and Becoming, (which reminded me a lot of some of Stockhausen’s work… I may be detecting a theme here…), and blends together well with the electronic elements on Derek Hurst’s An Werm: Notes From Underground.
John Young’s X reminded me of good soundtrack music; the dark mood evoked made me imagine a film noir. The last piece, Fuga Interna by Katharine Norman, features a spoken text by the composer that serves as a reflection of the memory of Norman’s mother teaching her piano as a child, whom she states “…at one time sat down next to me every day to help my practice as a beginning pianist.” At times dissonant, at times dreamy, the piece serves as a meditation on the passage of time.
The album strikes me as very well engineered and mixed. Additionally, all of the production elements (i.e. the reverb; not the electronic instrumentation) seem to be part of each composition as a whole. This was assuredly a result of the fact that each individual composer did the editing for his/her piece. It shows just how much technology, in the hands of creative individuals with good ears, can add to the practice of contemporary music.
Personally, I love the idea of something originally meant to be considered a ‘mere’ toy to be researched and practiced with such intent as Pestova does. To me, this brings to mind something that musicians (and really, everyone) should endeavour to remember: music is meant to be playful and creative. I commend her for her work in bringing the toy piano to further prominence in the area of new music.
Listening to Shadow Piano has inspired me to seek out more work featuring the toy piano. Shadow Piano should provide listeners with an interesting and enjoyable introduction to contemporary music that features the toy piano. More importantly, it is a fitting tribute by Pestova to her mother.