Yarnell Requires Re-listening

Ultimately, what I want from a piece of music is to make me miss it, to make me yearn to hear it, to run through my head in a quiet, seductive way, creating a nagging temptation that can only be satisfied by playing the recording yet again. Even among the hundreds of postclassical pieces I really like, there are few that come up to that level: the A++ pieces among all the A’s. I’ve found a new one: The Same Sky by San Francisco composer Carolyn Yarnell, as played by pianist Kathleen Supove on her new CD Infusion on Koch International Classics (KIC CD 7572). I had known the piece before. Yarnell includes it on her Tzadik CD Sonic Vision, and I liked it. But there, it’s in a totally electronic version with synthesizer and electronic effects. The electronic version is smooth and silky and even, but with Supové playing the melody part on a real piano, it acquires a glimmer, and depth, and – well, prickliness – that give it some friction and make it haunting.

The Same Sky is basically a slender line of piano notes echoed in digital delay, sometimes thickening into chords and dissonances. The piece opens with a repeated C-sharp, echoed lightning-fast, and the movement of the line breaks into shimmering textures. Like a soundtrack for the graceful dance of some lithe undersea animal, it darts around in exquisite arpeggios with subtly metamorphosing harmonic patterns, mostly delicate but sometimes intensifying into anger and sadness. And the electronics make it sound like a piano playing five times as fast as it can play, a will-o’-the-wisp piano line, an unreal yet familiar sound diffracted through poignant harmonies. The energy is so unusual: fast and sprightly, yet kind of sad and thoughtful. Plus, the disc offers, if you stick it in your computer, a Quicktime movie of Supové playing the piece, which gives you a better feel for the relation of electronics to piano. The Same Sky is also a video piece, with shifting cloud forms projected onto the inside lid of the piano in counterpoint with the music. Interesting visual idea.

The other pieces on Supové’s disc, all for piano and electronics, are enjoyable too – one each by Elaine Kaplinsky, Marti Epstein, and Randall Woolf. Kaplinsky’s Umbra is even texturally similar to The Same Sky, also in repeated notes but slower. But only The Same Sky sent me back to the CD player hours later saying, “I can’t get that out of my head, I have to hear it again.”