It was just over two years ago that Leah Kardos released her first album, Feather Hammer. Kardos drew on her early training as a pianist for this quasi-autobiographical release, experimenting with ingrained figures while exploiting the range of noises a piano can produce. The end result was an infectious pop-meets-classical mix that demanded repeated listening and was easily my favorite album of the year.
Following Feather Hammer was Machines, reviewed for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN by David McIntire. A daring song cycle based on email spam, Machines beautifully explored both the intimacy and lonliness created by an increasingly connected society. Not only did Machines avoid any semblance of a sophomore slump, it demonstrated the ever-growing artistry of Kardos, a trend that continues with Three Preludes.
Three Preludes offers something not extant in Kardos’ first two albums—purely acoustic music. The first three tracks of this 22-minute EP, Draw, February, and Hold Pattern, are piano preludes written for Ben Dawson, offering listeners a sense of Kardos as a composer in the more classical sense of the word. The second half of the album, however, marks a return to the techniques of Feather Hammer. The initial readings and rehearsals of the preludes were recorded (which could not have been a pleasant experience for the pianist!), becoming the source material for Kardos’ deft production. As she describes it:
What would this score sound like if it was being read for the first time – where would the player trip? would they gloss over inaccuracies, cover up and continue or stop altogether? If he was going to rehearse a difficult passage, what speed would he choose and where would the passage start and end? What would it sound like through a wall as background noise to some other activity? Capturing these ‘versions’, and seeing accidents and anomalies as variations, I felt the pieces evolving into something else – something bigger than what I had started with.
The preludes themselves are tonal, possessing an achingly beautiful quality that fluctuates between passionate and introspective passagework. As I listen to these pieces, I hear the subtle influence of minimalism, harmonies that evoke late 19th century French music, and traces of the best bits of popular music. A standout for me was the first track, Draw, with it’s plaintive, simple chords and dramatic middle section. What is remarkable, though, is how this otherwise tonal music avoids any sense of being anachronistic. I can only attribute this to the uncanny ability of Kardos to project her unique compositional voice. As to the performance by Ben Dawson, I offer what is just about the highest compliment one pianist can give another: I cannot imagine these pieces performed any differently. His interpretive sensibilities, masterfully executed, seems a perfect fit for Kardos’ music.
The third track, Hold Pattern, ends with the dying ring of two notes in the upper register of the piano, held beyond their counterparts in the dramatic final chord of the prelude. This sound carries over into the fourth track, January, marking the transition to a production style indicative of Kardos’ first two albums. The source material remains the same for both halves of the album, but Kardos is able to bring out new richness and beauty through her skillful mixing. Were you to ‘drop the needle’ in the first and second halves of the EP and attempt to find similarities, I imagine that they would not come easily; the mixing process virtually destroys any obvious connections. Yet after a full listen, it is clear that the emotional content remains largely unchanged. The second half serves as both an indistinct echo of the first and a new expression of the same idea. For me, the final track, Correction/E17, was the most compelling, with slow, drawn out harmonies and an ending that somehow encapsulates the entire album.
It is difficult for me to write about Leah Kardos’ music without sounding hyperbolic. She is an amazing composer, able to create beauty in a way that is both hers alone and that resonates so strongly with listeners. I could recommend that you purchase this album because it is stunning, but more important would be recommending that you purchase this album to support the artist. I, for one, am anxious to know what her 23rd album will sound like.