Theo Alexander – Broken Access.

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Theo Alexander, Prague based UK composer has appeared on these pages before with the early version of “Palliative” covered ahead of its inclusion on this album. For the uninitiated Alexander has been releasing music on labels such as Blank Editions and 1631 Recordings. “Broken Access” was released back in April on UK label Luau Records.

“The unique sound of London-born composer Theo Alexander blends tape-loop based drones with contemporary composition and a classical sensibility, resulting in a rich and unnerving sound that expands in each performance. An innovative playing and recording technique involving multiple layers of taped sound gives his music an arresting and raw quality that is seldom heard in the current piano music revival. His previous releases “Waiting For You to Die” and “The Black Bunny” were released by Swedish label 1631 Recordings (Hauschka, Dustin O’Halloran, et al), and “Points of Decay” by London label Blank Editions (Thurston Moore, Ben Vince). Broken Access was recorded at home in Prague utilising piano and Tascam 414. Each work features multiple, interacting layers that create an entirely new sonic environment for piano based music. Disarming intimacy is juxtaposed with processed playback, challenging ideas of authenticity associated with acoustic sound itself.”

“Palliative” The original piece opened with the sounds of a taped performance, glitches of technology breaking down and a repeating tape loop of piano which becomes the central rhythm of the piece and sounds like it’s ebbing and flowing. This version has a more vibrant sound than the original and opens straight away with solo piano. There is a confidence in Alexander’s playing as the music is propelled along. Where needed the emphasis on playing is gentle and when a bit more immediacy is required it is there as well. A long form drone joins the sound mix acting as a middle layer between the layers of piano playing. It sounds horn like with a long duration and its fluctuations work well alongside the piano.

As the track enters the second half of it’s over eleven minutes in length the music becomes more drone based and a bit muddy. The sound appears to rolling tape loops that seem to be decaying and the piano appears to be breaking down. Coming out of this section is a flexible drone which slowly removes itself from the loops and brings a fractured and slightly melodic tone with it, while still sounding submerged and muddy. The track is very much a tale of two half’s. The first half is pure piano music, while the second half is more about dissonance. I wonder also about the tracks title in reference to the music. Palliative is usually a reference to the care of a terminally all person and trying to make their remaining time as comfortable as possible. Could this track in the way it flows, be a musical representation to life, illness and then death (especially with the drone at the end)?

“Hammer Frenzy” minimalist fragile looping piano rhythms that have a strong sense of innocence open the track. Pedals, hammers and keys are all heard with a rich and natural recording, which is not dominated by this sounds of the instrument. The layer of tonally different piano pieces works well especially with the looping opener having a hypnotic quality which the other section can then color in with its lyricism. The music in a way feels like it’s a soundtrack to a dream. The initial minimalist section builds from almost silence and has a muted and hazy feel to it, almost like you are drifting. The second and more pronounced section feels like once you have passed the first of the five stages of sleep and you now are moving from light to deep sleep. A sudden stop and the turning off of the tape recorder brings us back to the present.

“Matter Of Balance” the most experimental piece on the album, the opening is coated in tape decay and drone. Through the detritus and sections of muddied distortion you can occasionally pick out vaguely clear piano parts. For the most part more a drone track than a piano based one and once the piano has freed itself from the tape machine, the texture of the track changes. While still coated in this cloak of sound the piano becomes freer as it follows looping rhythms to unfurl and reveal itself. It can be a tricky thing to take track titles on face value, but possibly the balance referred to in the title is the balance in Alexander’s work as both a tape loop artist and pianist and how he is able to fuse these two styles or techniques into his music.

“Fortuité” the sound of heavily edited piano on a decrepit tape rings out with muted tones, while loops of what sounds similar to tape that has been reused too many times, provides an interesting contrast and possibly demonstrates Alexander’s composition style best. Because of the nature of the piece there is a distance between the idea of listening to a piece of prepared music or music that is happening in the present. Alexander is so adept at blurring these lines that the music can sneak up on you and transform your interpretation of it. Some pianists like to work either on solo piano, piano with electronics, or piano with ambience and drones. Alexander’s use of tape loops adds a different layer of dimension to the composition and the position of the listener to the music. By changing the perception of the music it opens it up a myriad of possibilities.

“Aspects Withdrawn” an electronically manipulated piano key opens the track before stark, natural piano is joined by Alexander’s tape loops, which were such a feature of the original version of “Palliative”. Just when you think you may know where the track is heading (a tape looped fused piece of Modern Classical) it ventures into more experimental territories with the tape machine being the central instrument. The music feels like a copy of a copy of a copy. As each copy is made something in its DNA is altered which changes it and it gives of the feeling as if you have been watching an old film reel that has had some damage occurred to it, with some parts being crystal clear, while others a mere shadow of itself.

As this came out in late April, I have snoozed on it a bit. I implore you not to make the same mistake. In a very crowded field of pianists/composers Alexander stands out with his own personal stamp on the music, which is in a cliché is like an onion. The more you pull back a layer,the more is revealed. A totally recommended headphone listen.

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