Album Review: GéNIA – G. Prokofiev Piano Book No1

[Nonclassical; 2010]

The piano is a brilliant instrument. It’s hard for anyone to deny or argue against such a statement especially as it has become such a staple in a vast majority of music scenes. It’s as powerful an instrument as it is a failsafe – just try count the number of albums that have the clichéd closing song done with nothing more than a piano. But as nice as three chord tricks and twinkly Disney-like notes are, there’s a whole level to the piano that goes overlooked time and time again. Every so often you might hear it from the way an artist or band produces their work. It’s not the sound of the piano, be it old and creaky or new and pristine; it’s not the music, be it beautiful harmonies or dissonant mashing of the keys; it’s actually the sound of the musician playing the instrument. Anyone with any sort of vague knowledge of classical pianists alive in the recording age will likely point a finger straight to Glenn Gould. His humming and crooning while he played may have been intolerable for some but it also made the recordings human sounding. Listen to one of his recordings and it’s the sound of a man playing the piano at an exact moment in time, never to be repeated in the exact same way.

This thought in mind, to sum up GéNIA’s record G. Prokofiev Piano Book No1 accurately would be to call it robotic and cold. Its press release boasts of the pristine recording method “mastered through analogue tape and vintage valve equipment” and as welcome as a clean recording drained of any possible microphone hiss is, it completely sucks out any human element. Very seldom you might hear the damper pedal taking effect but these moments are so far apart that it feels pointless even holding out hope for such sonic details when listening through the album.

Another unwelcome aspect of the album is that it’s difficult to listen to comfortably. There are too many quieter moments to make it suitable for soundtracking your walk to work and it’s frustrating to listen to just sitting down due to excessive sense of movement (often by way of staccato chord patterns). But it can often be numbingly repetitive sounding and soon enough you find yourself distinguishing between loud and quiet moments as opposed to different sections of different songs.

It should be made clear though that I don’t wish to belittle the talent of GéNIA – she’s a fine pianist with undeniable ability and on this album displays a particular talent in working with fast moving and unpredictable pieces. Essentially all she’s doing here is playing the music made for her by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson to the heralded Sergei Prokofiev and founder of the Nonclassical record label). It’s hard to say then, without looking at the actual scores, how much freedom in movement around the keys GéNIA is actually displaying here, making the line blurred. But the compositions themselves seem questionable at times. Often they seem avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde, with little real depth or sense of exploration. “Clock Watt” begins with a suitable ticking like rhythm throwing in other notes which sound great when you imagine the delicate inner cogs of a clock mechanism. But come the middle section it veers off course and wanders about more like a vague improvisational session than a well considered idea.

Being the Nonclassical label it does seem wrong to try assess these compositions in traditional ways. Perhaps it’s a simple artistic choice that the music is arranged in the way it is and I can fully respect that but it doesn’t mean you can make your music uninteresting and uninspiring and expect listeners to be enthralled. There a few moments that shine through: those staccato chords that begin “Sketch” are enticing and hopeful; the beautiful flickering keys at the two minute mark of “Entrance”; the frivolous, unsettled and agitated sound of “Tough Moves.” Final song “Fky House” resembles “Tough Moves” with its busy arrangement while also reminding me of Daníel Bjarnason but as it really starts to build up the tension it just cuts out.

I recall a good while back seeing a programme on TV about how technology can intertwine with music. One of the examples they showed was how a computer could write a Beethoven sonata if it was fed the right information. It would take certain traits from his compositions and piece together something that would sound perfectly fine and acceptable but it would be lacking any human flair. And I’m kind of sad to say that Piano Book No1 reminds me of this and sounds much the same way. This is a shame because of the obvious talent on display here but when you suck out the human element to music all you’re left with it is something that could essentially be done by a machine.