Two local, piano-led instrumental albums came out recently, from Christchurch and Wellington respectively, and they serve as good examples of how different approaches can yield diverse results.
Cameron Finlay trained as a jazz drummer, an instrument he tutors in, studied composition, and has also contributed to Christchurch’s indie and hip-hop scenes. Starting in 2016 though, he’s released a trio of solo piano records, the latest of which is called Gardening.
As you might have gathered from its name, this is a botanically-themed collection. Alongside ‘Rain Falls on Glasshouse’, titles include ‘Delphinium’, and ‘Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass’. There’s also an Italian theme running through them, and some very non-NZ architecture and shrubbery on the cover.
Those mysteries are secondary, though, to the lovely songcraft that makes up Gardening. It splits the difference between meditative repetition, and a more traditional verse/ chorus approach. Complex chords feature, and most impressively, Finlay’s personality shines through.
In keeping with the theme, there’s atmospheric noise throughout, as if the tracks were recorded outdoors, or near an open window.
Wellington musician Marc Chesterman, meanwhile, approaches the same instrument with markedly different results. Chesterman has a background composing for theatre and film, including multiple projects with director Florian Habicht, Woodenhead among them.
Delve into his bio though and you’ll see he’s as much a sound designer as he is a composer, and it’s this interest in sonics that comes to the fore on his recents two projects. The first, called Jean's Piano, is built around samples of his grandmother playing in Whitianga Coromandel. Its follow up, subtitled An Hour of Piano Music, takes the same concept to greater extremes, stretching out into ambient soundscapes.
Chesterman goes into detail in the liner notes about his process, saying he mapped sections of his grandmother’s playing onto a MIDI keyboard. He says “Playing the sample is like playing any instrument - different pitches, notes are layered, new chords and combinations form. Plus you control the 'envelope', meaning, how fast a sound starts and finishes.”
There’s also various amounts of processing going on, as Chesterman recontextualizes these sections into forms that take on their own meaning. The result is aurally pleasurable, as well as a touching tribute to his grandmother, whose love of playing fueled this project.
He ends the notes with a line describing that impetus, saying, “remembering your grandmother's joy at playing piano, you have fun also.”