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Monday, August 23, 2021

Agnese Toniutti, Subtle Matters, New Music for Piano


As one rides along with the ups and downs of life there will be times when habitual reactions to everyday activities undergo more intense scrutiny, especially when living circumstances may be less than ideal. It is in those moments when your commitment to something seemingly without much recompense gets put to the test. Pandemic, economic struggle and world strife may cause you (on a Monday morning) to wonder why one persists at something seemingly without a lot of life survival opportunities attached. So I listen to pianist Agnese Toniutti's Subtle Matters (Neuma 138) and come to appreciate it while wondering if what I think of it matters a whole lot. Then I remember how much I appreciated in the past someone who took the time to listen to my music. What is the point of music if it is not listened to, discussed, appreciated?

So I continue. John Cage once made some reference to his music in relation to a Zen rock garden. I do not recall exactly what he said but the idea was that the elements of the rock garden--rocks, sand, little rake, patterned marks around the rocks--all of it was more than the simple elements might signify on their own. There is a series of visions and states one might attain by raking the sand and looking at the totality. So too for example one of Cage's prepared piano works--with repeated listens ideally brings you to something more than the timbral specifics, the ritual sorts of rhythms and tones per se. There is a kind of more heightened awareness one might glean as one listens. And perhaps that is a key factor in fully appreciating what he is about.

So the same might appropriately be said for Agnese Toniutti's rather wide-ranging program of avant extended technique, sound-color piano oompositions that make up today's CD. In all we experience some six single or multi-movement works, one for toy piano, the rest for an open vision of piano sounding made by conventional fingering but also by plucking, strumming, dampening and/or otherwise altering the piano string sound, following and furthering the technical innovations pioneered by composers like Cowell, Cage and Crumb.

So we get a kind of extension of the original extensions with adventuresome works by Lucia Dlugoszewski (1925-2000), Tan Dun (b. 1957) and Phillip Corner (b. 1933). As one might come to expect with such ultra-current extended piano pieces there is a sheer reveling in exotic sonic possibilities both pitched and noise-derived, a sometimes ritualistic gestural spaciousness, and a dramatically ambient architectonics of subtlety, as the album title suggests. Ms. Toniutti impresses with the practiced ease with which she moves from sound event to sound event.

Agnese Toniutti takes to these works with enthusiasm, imagination and eventful awareness. As one re-listens a few times the structural and sensual elements of each work becomes more pronounced and readily understandable, until in the end you see that no piece is arbitrary but rather poetically sensible and comprehensible in the pianist's vision of each segment.

The music vacillates between high abstraction, cavernous atmospherics and post-ethnic primality. In so doing the album sums up the spectrum and state-of-the-art for the continuingly fertile extended technique pianisms operative today. I warmly recommend it.

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