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Seth Horvitz: Eight Studies for Automatic Piano (Line)

Seth Horvitz is better known for his techno alter ego Sutekh, having released a variety of releases since the late 90s under the name. Those releases have ranged from fairly aggressive, glitchy techno (Incest Live on Force Inc) to leftfield found-sound manipulations (Fell on Orthlorng Musork) and everything in between. He’s also ventured into more academic circles with his reduced Periods.Make.Sense album as part of Mille Plateaux’s turn of the century clicks_+_cuts series and more recently with his wild series of Bach interpretations (collected and released as On Bach last year). Under his birth name, Horvitz is freed completely from genre and dives headlong into more purely academic waters.

Eight Studies for Automatic Piano is pretty much just what its title suggests. He’s programmed these pieces for piano to each explore a unique specific musical concept or technique. Because they’re programmed, Horvitz has more latitude to explore the impossible, combining speed and span in ways that no human could probably ever perform (even if more than one person sat at the piano or dueled). More so than his most severe electronic explorations, some of these pieces tested my patience, particularly the opening piece, “Study No. 14: Arch Study for the Highest Eight Notes.” Yes, it is exactly what it’s named for; aggressive plink-plonking of the very highest notes on the piano, far from its most pleasant sound, no doubt intended as a bit of a palate cleanser before moving into broader sounds. Thankfully, many of the other pieces are more rich, and the boldness of the compositions, which are often quite mathematical and precise in nature, comes through as mind-blowing, not headache-inducing. I hate to say it lest I sound anti-academic, but if it were not for the actual resulting music being so disorienting at times, Horvitz might be in danger of coming off as pretentious here; to his credit, or perhaps to my own taste, he does not. My personal favorite is “Echoes” which combines loud-to-soft repetition in a way that simulates a delay effect with layers cycling atop one another to a combined effect that’s totally dizzying. “Study No. 21: Bells” is more patient and persistent, relying mostly on a single repeated note and open atonal chords that interact around it; it recalls Ligeti’s piano cycle “Musica ricercata” (perhaps best known for its usage in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut film). Sometimes Horvitz’s explorations are more purely mathematical sounding, to varied results. “Study No. 1: Octaves, Systematically Filled and Folded” is not surprisingly the first one he created; it sounds the most basic in intent and content. It’s almost comical, flitting up and down the keyboard with variations of glissandos, trills and patterns octave by octave, again and again, sometimes more patient and mechanical and sometimes blazing in speed to the point of absurdity.  It’s easy to see, though, how he got from there to “Study No. 4: Sixteen Diatonic Glissandi Moving At Harmonic Rates,” a piece that is again fairly calculated and systematic, but more appealing and rich in its results, coming off less cold and purely generative than the first study. The last and longest piece, “Study No. 99: Strumming Machine,” is the most mesmerizing and repetitive of the bunch, relying almost entirely on repetitious runs that slowly change, starting off almost staccato and then applying more and more sostenuto and letting the strings resonate indefinitely. The arc of the piece is based as much on how much sustain is applied as the actual notes being played.

As a collection of studies, it’s simultaneously ambitious, academic and self-indulgent. However, I don’t consider those to be negatives; surely a project like this from an artist primarily tied to more conventional dance music denotes an inevitable amount of self-indulgence, as does most art that’s not intended for purely commercial purposes. It’s certainly not everyday listening for me, but I appreciate the nerdiness of it and it speaks to the piano geek in me. Whereas I’ve spent the last couple of years exploring how piano improvisations can inform and be retooled into more elaborate electronic compositions, Horvitz is exploring how compositions can be generated, manipulated, executed and then ultimately performed by a piano via software; it’s interesting to hear the results of his curiosity, even as they may not always quite hammer home.

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