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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mats Gustafsson - Piano Mating (X-Ray Records, 2015) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

I really held myself back from learning anything at all about this album until after I listened to it. Because what does a Mats Gustafsson piano album even sound like? What would the great saxophone torturer do with 88 keys at his disposal? All questions became moot once I queued up the album and let it run, first during my commuter’s trek along LA’s notorious 405 freeway, known for having some of the worst traffic in the US. “01” kicks off with steady drones, phasing slightly but otherwise pretty stable. Gradually, though phase and tonal shifting, the track becomes unsettlingly claustrophobic, in a good way. I can’t seem to hear anything outside the car; the sound of tires simply disappears. It’s a remarkably apt soundscape, the pitches seem to match the inorganic expanse of freeway environment. Then, I round a corner, the mountains come into view, and “01” shifts into something earthier, almost tender. How the did that even happen? When I queue up “02,” I feel like I know what to expect now. And yet, the sound is counterintuitively at odds with “01.” It’s warmer, like a meditative breathing exercise. Suddenly, it’s as if I can hear all the sounds surrounding me. From my tires, to squeaking brakes, even settling bridges. “02” triggered something deeply emotional. All this, it turns out, wrung from a ridiculous, semi-useless instrument: the Piano Mate, intended to give the effect of a keyboard-augmented prepared piano, the Piano Mate is supposed to be used with an acoustic piano. To create these droning miniatures, Gustafsson employs the machine on its own, wringing these strange phasing drones out of a machine barely designed to function alone. The brief album brings to mind Zorn and his organ recitals. Who knows what will come of the Piano Mate, but I for one would love to hear more of its strange drones in any of Gustafsson’s many projects.

Link to order and comments from Gustafsson explaining the instrument: