Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik, in a duo with Joëlle Léandre and Solo
By Eyal Hareuveni Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik may be known to the readers of this blog as the E side of Ken Vandermark’s DEK trio (with fellow-Austrian drummer Didi Kern), however the classically-trained Harnik is an experienced composer and improviser, playing in such free-improv outfits as the Barcode and Plasmic quartets in duos with Chicagoans reeds player Dave Rempis and drummer Michael Zerang, and in the interdisciplinary project Rose is a rose is a rose, a homage to the writings of Gertrude Stein. Harnik’s recent releases emphasize her highly personal approach to free improvisation and composition.
Joëlle Léandre & Elisabeth Harnik - Tender Music (Trost, 2018) ****½
Harnik says that she has found her own intrinsic approach to the piano and with free improvisation through careful listening to French double bass master Joëlle Léandre, twenty years before she and Léandre began to play together as a duo. Tender Music, the debut album of this duo, captures their third performance on April 2016 in Graz, Austria.
Harnik and Léandre continue to perform as a duo but even on this early phase of their collaboration they already established a profound bond. As Ken Vandermark notes in his liner notes, both bring to this setting their “unique personal creative histories - applying techniques and melodic/textual territories that are distinctly their own, developed in other ensembles and field of endeavors, and brought together through the parallel lines of expression”.
Léandre likes to suggest her free-associative improvisations as spontaneous compositions and often she offers a set of programmatic improvisations, that offer different moods and dynamics. Harnik anchors these loose, compositional ideas in richer, coherent narratives. Léandre, on her side, knows how to play - literally - with Harnik thoughtful architecture of sounds and structured dynamics. She tempts her with her energy, passion and wicked sense of playfulness and humor.
The six piece, all titled “Ear Area”, reflect this attentive, sometimes tender and delicate, but more often quite raging and restless, complementing interplay between these strong-minded improvisers. Léandre allows herself to be totally emotional and vulnerable on the second “Ear Area”, where she sings in an unusual, innocent voice. On later pieces, Léandre and Harnik sound as enjoying the common experience of heading into the unknown; the liberating sense of taking risks, searching for new, unknown terrains, dynamics and emotions. The last piece summarizes their distinct histories in a touching, tender way that suggests a unique a way of communication between the double bass and the piano, a personal, magical way that is totally their own and only they know its many secrets. Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Elisabeth Harnik - Ways Of My Hands: Music for Piano (Klopotec, 2018) *****
Ways Of My Hand suggests another side of Harnik. Her improvisations transform instantly into compositions that reflect her intimate and deep knowledge of the many histories of jazz, avant-garde, art rock and improvised music of the last century and distill her strong, idiosyncratic voice. The five compositions were recorded in September and December 2015.
The opening “Every Time He Punched A Hole [To Conlon Nancarrow]” refers to scholar Robert Wiley’s saying about the American composer (1912-1997). Every time that Nancarrow punched the notes for his player piano études “the world got more interesting”. Harnik plays her prepared piano and not the mechanical player piano but manages to create a similar, dramatic and quite enigmatic sense of hyper-kinetic energy. The short pieces “Ragged” and “From jaw to ear” suggest the bold and methodical manner in which Harnik reconstructs and re-invents the tonal range of the piano, exploring his wooden body timbral qualities as extending the percussive sounds of its strings.
“As The Crow Flies North [To Jeanne Lee]”, Harnik emotional homage to the American vocalist-poet-composer (1939-2000), is an almost silent meditation on fragile, transparent sounds and overtones. The four-parts suite “Flow And Construction [To Anthony Braxton]” is, naturally, the most complex composition here. The fractured, rhythmical and melodic elements of this suite may flow in an erratic, eccentric ways but do gravitate into delicate, arresting structures with their own, inner logic and fascinating architecture, expressing a myriad of sounds, feelings and textures, from soft and gentle to the rough and dense ones.