Words by David C. Obenour
For as common place as it has become in modern life, the piano remains fascinating. Not an inexpensive instrument, the awkwardness in relocating has left them scattered throughout houses and halls, sometimes lively and played and other times left to shelve heirloom trinkets and dust. It’s long history has amassed libraries of sheet music and recordings that span centuries – giving it a dignified, though maybe stale air about it.
But decoupling our lived experience and shared history from the instrument, its fascination comes back into focus. The piano is both a string and percussive instrument with a wide range tones – and the ability to produce those tones simultaneously. And all of that is just when it’s being play as it was originally envisioned.
Reintroducing himself after a hand injury left his abilities limited, musician Eli Wallace has created a fascinating exploration on pieces & interludes of what the piano is and can be.
Off Shelf: As an instrument, and maybe in more of a traditional sense, what is it about the piano that appeals to you?
Eli Wallace: I wanted to play the piano from when I was young, and the aspects that appealed to me then still appeal to me now; it’s been a constant element in my life since I was 8 years old. I tried other instruments as a child, but the ability to play different pitches simultaneously and its rhythmic attack continued to draw me to the piano. To me, these two characteristics are still the most alluring elements the piano offers, whether I’m playing in a more traditional sense or preparing the entire instrument with objects. I love having 88 keys available to strike! I never cease to be interested and invested in the instrument’s unbounded potential, continually in awe of how it works and the sounds it produces. Furthermore, every piano is different and unique, and I strive to develop an individual relationship with every instrument I play.
OS: Looking at that appeal, what inspires you to want to further explore it and the sounds you can create from it?
EW: A few factors led to further exploration. I experimented with extended techniques beforehand, but in 2016 I fractured my finger and didn’t have the same dexterity or endurance. I am finally getting it back, but for a couple years, I became frustrated and therefore looked for different ways to play the instrument. Simultaneously, I wanted to create more sounds that sustain, grow and diminish in volume over time. That is impossible with the simple strike of a key on the piano as the sound immediately begins decaying.
This lack of agility on the instrument and a desire for sustained sounds converged, and I commenced on an obsessive practicing spree. I expanded little by little, starting with my hands and fingers playing the strings. Then I incorporated objects, progressively adding new techniques, sounds, and approaches into my practice. Once I felt comfortable with one sonic language, I would try to add another, and so on. Currently, I still explore unceasingly. Looking at the piano in this way opens up a new world, and through this lens, I get to explore all of the instruments’ possibilities. I feel like a kid figuring things out, trying this, trying that, settling on something, experimenting with it, finding how to make it work, and then determining how it can be added into my practice. The piano is such a mesmerizing instrument. Sometimes I get overwhelmed and teary-eyed by things I discover; the sounds are so beautiful.
OS: How do you think of the two very different percussive and string elements of the piano?
EW: I think about these two things all the time. I’ve put together string and piano ensembles over the past few years because I wanted to hear all of these piano preparations in conjunction with a string ensemble. I wrote a graphic score, Precepts, that I released as an album with piano, violin, cello, and bass. I’m still enamored by the result, and I’m going to record new material for piano and a string ensemble next year. The way in which I create sound on the piano strings is often very similar to how string players use their instruments to make noise, whether using traditional or extended techniques.
Additionally, violin, viola, cello, and bass influence how I approach the strings on the piano: preparing the string individually to generate extra sounds or harmonics, considering what materials to use on the strings, and the motions I’m using to generate the sounds, whether I’m moving perpendicular or parallel to the strings.
Relating to percussion, I’ve always considered myself a percussive pianist and therefore developed many strong playing bonds with drummers. My sense of rhythm and time is different, perhaps peculiar. When I was studying jazz, I never felt like I could truly line up, I always conceived of time differently, and in the jazz education world, a uniform conception of time is prioritized. This rigidity made me uncomfortable while playing. I view temporal movement as varied; I don’t always want things to line up, I want the beat to be malleable, or if the beat is consistent, I want my placement to be flexible, thereby creating expressive tension. When I entered the free jazz and free improvisation world, I found percussionists and other musicians who felt pulse and placement similarly. I could finally connect with others, breathing phrases collectively while playing.
So, a new percussive world blossomed when I started reaching into the piano. More and more, I see myself as a percussionist. Because many of my techniques involve mallets, I practice stick technique to control my rhythmic placement and subtly of attack. I use mallets to play inside the piano and objects placed on a table beside the piano. These objects – or small instruments – have become an integral part of my setup. They contribute to the overall sum of what I’m creating, accenting and complimenting what I’m playing on the piano. I’m fascinated by this cross-over; in fact, many string preparations sound similar to objects in my percussion setup.
OS: I have to also imagine that microphone placement, types, and any filters would play a large role in getting these sounds. How did you go about exploring and setting that dynamic?
EW: Absolutely, however, this is a new component for me, one I’m still exploring and learning. Over the past few years, I needed to develop a shrewdness for specific recording strategies to cultivate the sound I wanted. There are recordings where I listened back and felt discontent with how the sounds I generated were captured. A standard two-microphone piano setup just doesn’t cut it for what I’m doing now. I’m not a gear person either, so I’ve had to learn, and I’m sure I say ridiculously naive things all the time in the studio, but I work with the engineer to hopefully get the result I’m after.
pieces & interludes was a much more involved process than anything else I’ve recorded. With the help of Michael Coleman, who engineered, mixed, and produced the album, the recording process actually shaped the form of the work. In the studio, we worked diligently to bring out certain sounds for different tracks using a variety of mics. Michael put mics in various places: above the piano, throughout the studio, and even a contact mic inside the piano. In the mixing process, I wanted each piece to sound different to highlight each track’s idiosyncrasies. We used a distinct mixing approach for each piece, concentrating on mics that punctuated the respective musical material. This mainly involved accentuating the mics right next to the piano, as I wanted intimacy with the sounds as if the listener were inside the instrument with me experiencing the sound waves reverberate. For example, mixing strategies for piece 1 unearthed the bass resonance of the entire instrument, whereas for piece 3 the mix boosted grating high-pitched sounds directly from the strings.
For the interludes, Michael and I primarily used room mics placed away from the piano for a far-off sound, giving the listener a moment of respite before dropping them back into the close-mic’d intensity of the next piece. These recording factors proved to be a final element in the creative and compositional process, conceiving the studio itself as an instrument with different possibilities that shaped the construction and narrative arc of the album.
OS: How many takes did you record for pieces & interludes? Either in particular moments or broader thinking, can you think of the affirmations that directed you to the sessions you chose?
EW: I can tell you exactly how many takes I did of each piece because I have it all notated. I did three takes of piece 1, five takes of piece 2, three takes of piece 3, and three takes of piece 4. I chose take three of piece 1, take five of piece 2, take three of piece 2, and take two of piece 4; so many numbers, I hope that’s not too dizzying!
Right away, I knew which take I was going to use, I felt it in the studio. It took a few tries to shape each piece’s morphology the way I intended. piece 2 was a little scary, I couldn’t get it right, and I started getting worried because we still had so much to do, and each piece required a time-consuming setup. Finally, for take five, I just settled in and got what I wanted; I think I did a couple little jumps of excitement when I finished, I was so elated that I finally shaped it the way I wanted from start to finish. I did two long takes for the interlude material and culled the three interludes from a contiguous section of take one.
In terms of affirming what I selected, honestly, it was just a feeling, no frilly thought-out mulled-over calculation. The takes I chose flowed well and carried the thread from beginning to end. Collectively, Michael and I knew which ones we should use; I remember smiling at each other after the good ones with a shared sentiment of “that was the one.”
OS: How does your desire for exploration express itself in recording pieces & interludes? Were you interested in any manipulations in that process? Or did you want any effects to be more primarily achieved through analog methods?
EW: It’s interesting you ask this because, no, I didn’t use any manipulation at all in the process. We mixed and adjusted EQ, levels, etc., to hone the original sound. But, any distortion, delay, tremolo, or other effect is all achieved through the preparations. By analog, if you mean just what the microphones captured, then yes, I attained all results organically without any digital manipulation.
However, I want to work on projects in the future where I input sounds I record on the piano and then manipulate them electronically, layer them, and create compositions through a collage process, somewhat similar to a musique concréte approach.
OS: You also work in some very stark dynamics and abruptness. I was wondering if you could talk about the space around your notes, its flow or amputation, and how that works into your experimentation?
EW: This is a tricky question because my musical decisions are primarily based on instinct and visceral feeling, which directs the placement of sounds. In music and life in general, I love variation, diversity, change, etc. Therefore, with sound, I’m drawn to songs and compositions that incorporate a variety of dynamics, shapes, timbres, section lengths, and formal strategies. Although all music content in pieces & interludes is carefully crafted and practiced, everything is still improvised; there’s no score, traditional, textual, or graphic. Everything materialized through the process; therefore, these recordings are just a continuation of that compositional process. The drastic dynamic changes and textural, timbral, and note shifts are manifestations of my innate improvisational proclivities. In other words, it’s just how I hear the music flowing, always considering repetition and variation, tension and release, and the overarching compositional direction.
Relating to space around sounds, I experimented with letting notes resonate without interruption so that I, as a performer, and people, as listeners, could fully experience that sound from start to finish. Additionally, I repeated particular notes because I am fascinated by all the factors that create a sound. For example, if I strike a prepared note once and then attack it again, it might sound very different: contrasting beating patterns, more prominent harmonics, harsher percussive elements, or lingering fading noises. Additionally, when preparing the piano, I’m constantly yearning to create a multi-dimensional sound, asking myself how many layers I can conjure. I wanted people to hear that variability and dimensionality, putting them in my shoes for a bit so they could enjoy the sounds on the same personal level.
To dictate the flow, pacing, and a sense of tempo, I often referred to pulses in the sounds. The congenital vibrations in the notes often dictated the beat I felt as I progressed through the music, whether or not I was leaving a lot of space or creating a more rambunctious note-filled texture.
One more thing: prepared piano will always be about experimentation. Every piano is different; weather and humidity constantly shift, altering these sounds daily. Preparations may speak better on certain days, but part of the process is embracing the variability and uncertainty and running with it.
OS: Can you talk about the abrasiveness of piece 3? How do you think of it both on its own and as a part of this album?
EW: Definitely, I would like to impart my perspective on this because I’ve mulled over it quite a bit! I often think about any work as a whole before I even begin because I become discombobulated and stressed out if I don’t see it in its totality. During this epoch, I was interested in creating work in four parts, with one of the parts different from the other three. This can also be heard in Precepts, where movement II of IV is an outlier. The score to movement II looks and is interpreted differently than the other movements and, therefore, sounds distinct, a visual and sonic pariah.
For pieces & interludes, I also created four pieces, one substantially different from the other three. piece 3 is the odd one out. Its length, developmental strategy, sonic content, and physical gestures contrast with the rest of the album. I have yet to mention the consideration of physicality in crafting this music. Each piece focuses on a different movement, a singular corporeal technique that determines the outcome. piece 3 emphasizes a scraping motion moving perpendicular and parallel to the strings to actualize high-pitched screeching sounds. When I play this way, I actively and consciously connect with the piano, with the strings and the objects I’m holding so that there’s one line of energy flowing between the source of the sound and my body and mind. I want to be so in tune and focused with the movement and the sound, metaphorically marrying myself with the instrument.
Returning to piece 3, I designed it to be abrasive, jarring to our psyches and cochlear senses to take us out of what had previously been stated. I’m interested in how diverse sonic landscapes influence our thoughts, sensations, and feelings. piece 3 is the most divergent segment in relation to the rest of the album, and that’s on purpose. I didn’t want the album to stay in the same vein throughout; I wanted a break, hence the harshness. When I listen back, it feels simultaneously horrifying yet sublime because we’re forced to sit with that sensation, as uncomfortable as it may be. It’s also crucial in the chronology of the album. It comes immediately after the cliff-hanger ending of Part A, dropping us into dissimilar musical terrain, and then we come out on the other side exactly where we left off (interlude 2 to interlude 3 are spliced contiguous parts culled from a much longer track).
To highlight the peculiarity of piece 3, it’s also the only music on the album that isn’t connected to a track before or after, the silence before and after the track mark its separateness.
OS: How do you want pieces & interludes to reflect in live performances? What remains and what evolves through live improvisation?
EW: What I find so vital and immediate about this work is that it could not be replicated in live performance. It would be physically impossible to set up these preparations in a live setting as each piece requires quite a bit of placement and tweaking to ensure everything is resounding as intended. Whatsmore, the preparations for the interludes were extremely extensive, as every key on the piano was altered in some way.
The fact that this album could not have been performed live adds personal significance. When I play live solo performances, I improvise but shape the music I’m creating in real-time, whereas the arc of this work was crafted in the studio and after recording. Therefore, it’s an artifact of a specific concept culled from one day of recording and over a year of extensive thought and practice. The only way to realize its manifestation was to record it accordingly, going piece by piece and then stitching it together to create the overall structure.
When I play live concerts, I prepare the piano to access different sounds, textures, territories, and approaches without employing an entirely different set of objects. I want to give myself a mobile canvas where I can go in many different directions, giving me the tools and the flexibility to extemporize for an entire set. I’m performing an album release concert at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY on December 19th, and I’m developing a new composition using the same process I used for the pieces on the album. It’s a 15-minute slot in an Infrequent Seams festival concert, so it’s the perfect opportunity to compose a new work, piece 5.
OS: Can you talk about the painting for the cover of pieces & interludes? What inspired you to use it and how do you think of its connection to the music?
EW: This painting is by my partner Sandra Medina. Since this project is a personal and intimate expression of who I am as a person and musician, I wanted those closest to me to be part of the project and actively participate in the process. So, I asked my close friend and collaborator Drew Wesely to write the liner notes, and I asked my partner Sandra Medina to do the artwork.
Sandra uses painting as her way of expressing herself creatively. Since we’ve known each other, she’s commented that when she listens to improvised music she often generates visual shapes and specific colors in reaction to the sound. She correlates the structure of the music to her own improvisational painting methodology. I’m drawn to how she shapes her lines, the inherent movement apparent in each visible brushstroke, and the vibrancy and diversity of her color palette. After recording, I knew I wanted to ask her to do the artwork for this project and for it to be a special collaboration between us. She had heard little bits of the album but not the entire thing; I preferred the music to be independent of what she concocted artistically. So we briefly discussed what I envisioned regarding her work and its relation to the album, but I didn’t give any specific direction. I wanted her to have the freedom to create a painting using her singular vision instead of thinking of it as a confining commission.
When she finished, she showed me, and I was stunned; the artwork was exactly what I foresaw for the album cover. I’m serious; it was crazy. It’s incredible how moments work out like that sometimes, and we witness the manifestation of the power of intentionality. So, the artwork connects to the music energetically and sensorially, but also on a deeply personal level; its connection is multi-faceted. However, the painting also stands on its own. I love when people come over to our place and comment on it. After they’ve appreciated the work for its own merit I tell them that it’s on the cover of pieces & interludes.