Ken M (Ken Mccarthy)
"Trips for Piano is a strikingly unfettered exploration into one’s secret inner life..."
A “pianistic” piano piece is understandably bound to logistical considerations as much as aesthetic ones. There’s the old-school piano composer’s hard-wired dichotomy about asymmetrical roles of the left and right hand, structural background-middle ground-foreground layering for bass, chordal harmony, and melody. And let’s not forget about the hot foot play.
In that light, Martin Graff’s album Trips for Piano is a refreshing and revelatory collection of works in which a formidably well-trodden instrument finds itself beholden to his unyielding whims, and where the practical yields to the depthless, abstract demands of artistic expression. There’s audacious simplicity alongside seemingly effortless virtuosity, including moments where even harsher dissonances, through Graff’s delivery, strike my ear as warm consonance.
Having had the benefit of reading his lovingly engraved scores, I marvel at his specificity when it comes to denoting mood, phrasing, dynamics, articulation, and subtle shifts in tempo. As a lifelong, yet admittedly sloppy, pianist (a friend and fellow musician once gifted me with the nickname “Banana Fingers”), encountering this level of meticulousness can initially seem daunting, if not tyrannical, but it’s actually a generous offering of guideposts for any performer ready to join him on this wonderfully transcendent journey.
With his piece “Into…” I admire the richness Graff is able to achieve via two contrapuntal voices, along with a simple theme that manages to rise to profundity through its sheer persistence, taking me to experiential spaces from a younger time I’d honestly forgotten all about.
“Prism” alternates both naturally and unexpectedly between spaciously voiced modality and more chromatically dense tone clusters, as if traversing a contemplative path that takes sudden but wholly welcome turns.
In “Meditative,” Graff once again explores the full range of the instrument, dipping his toes into harmonically ambiguous waters before boldly landing on major tonic chords, resting on them as contemplative islands before embarking again into the emotional sea—a striking aural metaphor for the difficult yet rewarding nature of self-reflection.
As an album, Trips for Piano is a strikingly unfettered exploration into one’s secret inner life—that deep, holy, sometimes intimidating place we all have at our disposal, but which few of us so openly access—faithfully translated via what I can only imagine is Graff’s daily commitment of synching his soul and body to make it all happen on such a physically demanding instrument. He clearly reveres the piano, as will many listeners who take the trip he has unlocked from it.
—KM, June 11, 2021