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Paul Barsom

"Trips for Piano is a one-way, one-stop pilgrimage home. Like heaven is supposed to be..."

“Be Where You Are, Where You Are: Trips for Piano by Martin Graff”

Prepare for a gratifying journey to nowhere. Martin Graff’s Trips for Piano is less a rushing, ocean-bound river than a serenely spiraling eddy. It’s a one-way, one-stop pilgrimage home. Like heaven is supposed to be. It’s not trying to run a gauntlet of expression or explore new technical frontiers. It’s not about sharp contrast or flamboyant virtuosity. What we get is a series of emphatic propositions on substantially one topic. Each of the eight pieces in this set runs in its own channel, yet flows from the same emotional vortex. They are a plain-spoken bundle of love letters. The prevailing mood is undeviating, an octet of sketches on the same character. Each enters the same dramatic stage vacated by its predecessor, but it’s more like a wardrobe change than a new actor.

These meditations are by turns delicate, deliberate, dreamy, excursive, intimate, patient, thunderous, and wispy. The titles only vaguely suggest their meanings and Graff wisely avoids spelling them out in pandering program notes. He doesn’t need to. These are very direct musical statements. That Graff eschews academic obfuscation in his composing is putting it mildly. On first hearing, the music sounds deeply familiar, its affects quarried from the foundation stone of musical sensation. This is a no-irony zone. That is especially intriguing given its contrast with Marty’s winkingly oblique, multi-layered, graphic/prose free-association project, The Face Zone, which is full of sundry satires. Not here, though. The simplicity and earnestness of this music is a bit like looking directly into a sonic sun. Fortunately, Graff never lets that radiance become static.

It flows, or rather, spins, with constant morphing and spontaneously intuitive digressions averting any heavy-handedness. One never quite knows in what direction it will swirl next. That’s because Graff’s forms and musical progressions rely more on an intuitive succession of loosely related ideas than on thematic rigor or any other formulaic template. Pieces rarely revisit their origins, yet somehow avoid topical non sequiturs, a significant compositional achievement. There is an engaging metamorphosis in spite of the general uniformity of pacing. All of them are moderately slow but have a temporal and dynamic push and pull that creates visceral topography, rushing and relaxing, rising and falling. Harmonic interest is maintained not so much through novel chords as by novel harmonic movement, more like Brahms than Berio. Gesturally, it’s more a patient lilt than a pulsating stride.

Graff’s meticulous playing is welded inseparably into each piece. It’s obvious they can go no other way than he plays them. Intention informs each note and yields a definitive performance. Firmly settled details of dynamics, durations, tempos, pedaling, and voicing render a reading of reference. Fortunately, the composer understands the sonorous capabilities of the instrument, both as creator and performer; e.g. chords in various guises are both written and voiced for perfect growl and chime.

It would be a mistake to call Trips any kind of new age music. These are certainly pretty piano pieces, but otherwise they’re unrelated to those naive, pandering drones that lurk in that insipid corner of the genre galaxy. For one thing, they aren’t trying to soothe you. They are trying to break your heart. They seamlessly blend styles without any real obligation to them, so labeling them classical-ish or jazz-ish would be simplistic and misleading. They have a kind of mongrel hybrid vigor that begs new taxonomy. I honestly don’t know what to label them and that’s good.

While each of these short works is self-contained, they flow well as a set since their revolving variety and unforeseen redirections keep them mercurial and fresh. I imagine these would be heard to best effect while sitting immobile, staring at the horizon, a wall, a cat, nothing, anything, for the full duration. I did it while gazing eastward at a mountainous horizon, late on a hazy, warm, desert afternoon. Going nowhere, the music and vista fused into one complete experience. However you take this trip, it will be less a sojourn than a sesshin, more mantra than menagerie. It will remind you that you’re already right where you’re supposed to be. Someplace like heaven.

—PB, May 29, 2021

Paul Barsom rides bicycles, writes and plays music, and is continually amazed by pretty much everything. His current music project is The Weed Garden.

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