Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Jens Harald Bratlie's Vers la Lumiere from 2L Recordings

"I noticed you were playing some piano music before. It was...very different."

"Uh, er, yeah...that was something I have in for review..."

"No, no. I liked it. Could you play it again?"

Have you ever watched a horror film or a thriller where the shocks and surprises are few and far between, which increases their impact? Now imagine that concept applied to music, where you listen to a substantial chunk of music, ten minutes or twenty minutes or more, and then the entire piece gets knocked over on its side and takes your breath away. That's what happens in the latest release from 2L Recordings, Vers la Lumiere. This album takes solo piano works from Antonio Bilbalo, Franz Liszt and Olivier Messaien--all performed by Jens Harald Bratlie--and juxtaposes them with brief interludes of electroacoustic tones and sounds from his son David Bratlie.

Okay, maybe I should have said "spoiler alert." If you go into this album blind as I did, it's quite a rush to hit that first wave of electronic tones. It sounds, and feels, like the floor disappears beneath you. Once you regain your footing, you wait for the next wave. It comes later than you think, adding to the suspense.

Lest you think this is some parlor trick, it's not. The idea of the juxtaposition of the piano and the "electroacoustic transitions" supports the theme suggested by the title--"darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that." (That's a quote, of course, from Martin Luther King, Jr.) Bratlie & Son use that idea as a springboard into the nature of artistic expression, and how a musician needs to plunge into contemporary sound in order to re-evaluate history.

What makes this such an effective exercise (which inspired the conversation above, with a friend) is the focus and depth of the piano pieces and how those qualities demand such rigid and consuming dedication from the pianist. The program choices are varied to add yet another layer. Bilbalo's "La Notte" chronicles a night of loneliness and despair and therefore prompts you into darkness. Lizst's "Vallee d'Olbermann" comes straight from the heart of the Romantic Era and sweeps you back into the light, where you can experience the healing power of sheer beauty. The two Messiaen pieces, both from "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus," are more manic and tinged with madness; in a way they encapsulate the flood of opposing emotions that come before while clawing at the walls of the frontier.

Punctuating each piece, of course, are those astonishing electronic sounds that act as the hand that shakes your shoulder and wakes you up. Allow yourself to absorb them, to be surprised by their appearance, and perhaps you'll experience those same epiphanies about dream states you might have felt the first time your watched the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive. There's a sublime, private cluster of feelings that gets disturbed when you ponder the nature of sleep, which of course is another realm where the differences between light and darkness get resolved.

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