The phrase ‘solo piano’ conjures a very particular image. One imagines a concert hall with a single, grand piano, upon which a series of major works of classical music or extended jazz improvisations are played. Often concerts for solo piano are about technical musical accomplishment, conducted with little elaboration or explanation from the performer; these events are prestigious and austere.
Renowned keyboard wizard, and member of popular American instrumental collective, Snarky Puppy, Bill Laurance has thrown all of those pre-conceptions out the window for his ongoing UK and European tour in support of his latest solo album, CABLES. On Wednesday night, Laurance totally redefined not only the physical expectations of a solo piano performance, but also the thematic ones – it was a performance where every element was meticulously thought through, in an atmosphere that felt completely relaxed.
The pianist walked onto the stage and immediately sat at the piano, which had been fitted carefully and intricately with three microphones and a series of synthesisers and effects units. He sat in silence, just breathing and centring himself, for almost a minute before launching into his first piece. The thematic ambition of the performance as a whole demanded that the audience first be eased into Laurance’s sound world, so he began with a couple of pieces from his first two albums: ‘December in New York’ from Swift (2015), and ‘Chia’ from Flint (2014). These pieces, which were originally recorded for large ensembles, were rendered beautifully here for piano alone. Through these pieces, Laurance established his filmic style of composition as well as his eclectic approach to improvisation, incorporating Latin, and Klezmer-esque sounds into pieces that had more of a Western Romantic flavour.
These demonstrations of skill served as something of a warm up for Laurance’s presentation of the material from his new album. With the remaining numbers of the first set, he introduced the theme of self-reflection and our relationship with the world around us. ‘Ebb Tide’, the first tune of the night from the new album, was inspired by climate change and the sea. Laurance introduced the piece as being concerned with the “fragility of Mother Earth”. The music reflected this theme beautifully through the ways in which the notes washed into one another, helped along by the first use of the extensive reverb provided by the effects setup, as well as cascading, melodic runs up and down the piano.
It was fascinating trying to piece together what was going through Laurance’s mind as he constructed these layered, complex pieces of music before the audience’s eyes. This is the kind of music that – to use a chess analogy – requires the performer to see the whole board, to think six moves ahead. The balancing act of piecing together these intricate musical ideas, born of an eclectic series of influences is especially difficult. Laurance’s music is Einaudi, Chopin, Brad Mehldau, James Horner, Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, Snarky Puppy and more, but what is so impressive about it is that among all those influences, his own unique voice is never lost.
The second set of the night was where things began to get really profound. It is rare that contemporary instrumental music is presented with such a clear thematic direction as Laurance did here. After introducing the second half with a dexterous solo rendition of fan-favourite Snarky Puppy tune, ‘Ready Wednesday’, he began to dive, in earnest, into the material from his new album. Laurance explained that much of the music here would explore the relationship between man, time and technology, and in aid of that, he began to incorporate more and more of the pieces of technology linked up to the piano. ‘Constance’ reflected the idea of time as a force for healing through its chordal, contemplative nature, all of which evolved from a subtle rotating right-hand motif. ‘Cables’, the title piece from the new album, pondered the ethical implications of the exponential growth of technology. Its use of crackling, distorted synths, alongside pastoral piano voicings conjured a feeling of contrast between the organic and the mechanical in a really striking way.
Perhaps the most impactful moment of the night was the opening of ‘Singularity’, another new piece, which saw Laurance utilising a vocoder to produce some really beautiful chords which sounded both eerily artificial yet, thanks to the breathiness of his vocal delivery, comfortingly human. Atop this foundation, Laurance built a powerful synth, drum and bass groove over which he began to introduce breathtakingly expressive piano lines. The idea of the singularity – a unity between man and technology – was deftly represented here by a stunning melodic line played in unison on piano and synth.
It is rare that so much thought is put into the thematic concerns of a concert like this one. It is hard to convey those kinds of ideas through instrumental music because music without lyrics is often incredibly abstract. It is a reflection on Laurance’s awareness as a composer and skills as a communicator that this solo piano performance (that wasn’t really for solo piano) was able to so coherently and consistently communicate such a complex series of themes. Bill Laurance is not only an astonishingly talented pianist, but he is able to empathetically communicate through his music ideas that never fail to get you thinking.