It's hard to remember by looking at it that a piano is a stringed instrument. Yet under the hood of every grand, baby grand, and upright piano, are wires of various lengths tuned to vibrant to the frequency equivalent of each note in one of its eleven octaves. In fact until the early 1700s when Barolomeo Cristofori created the first equivalent of the modern piano by installing hammers to hit the strings when a key was pressed, harpsichords and clavichords had hooks that plucked the string corresponding to each key.
Neither the harpsichord nor the clavichord were suited to being played in a concert setting as they were invariably be drowned out by the rest of the orchestra. The new instrument took its name of pianoforte because Cristofori's modifications gave it the ability to be able to play both soft (piano) and strong (forte). Nearly as important as the ability to control the volume, the hammers also increased the control a player had over the instrument's ability to sustain a note.
In spite of what must have been a sizeable difference in quality of tone and volume, the new instrument didn't become popular until the rise of the Romantic movement towards the later part of the 1700's. With the movements heavy emphasis on emotions in the arts, the piano's ability for expression made it increasingly the instrument of choice for both performers and composers. If you have ever heard a harpsichord, you'll know that there is nothing it can do to match the emotional power generated by the rolling thunder of a piano's bass keys or the ethereal, delicate tremolo that can be achieved at the other end of the keyboard.
While the emotional extravagances of the Romantic era are a thing of the past, piano players are still utilizing the instrument's diversity of expression as a means of recreating an emotional record of a time, place or situation. Using tone and sound in lieu of words artists have created the equivalent of musical poems in the hopes of creating a more direct emotional connection with their audience than is possible with words.
Sound has the ability to communicate on a universal level that isn't possible with words. For while a sound or a rhythm can be understood by anyone, a word can only be comprehended by another who speaks its language. While it's true that each person might hear something different in the same note, or the same progression of notes, there's no barrier standing in the way of their attempted comprehension. Viggo Mortensen's recent recording, Time Waits For Everyoneis a wonderful example of these types of creations.
On previous recordings where he has collaborated with various people, Mr. Mortensen has shown that he has an understanding of how sound can be utilized to created emotional soundscapes. On Time Waits For Everyone he uses the same principles that he's employed on those earlier recordings, but has narrowed the focus down to just what can be created with solo piano.
This is not the type of music that you can just put on in the background and expect to get anything out of it. Yet while each of the eighteen pieces requires the listener's attention, the rewards of doing so make the investment worthwhile. Mr. Mortensen has taken great pains to make each of them unique so there's not a moment anywhere on the disc where you feel like something has just been tossed off or is filler.
The majority of the pieces are tied to either a geographical location or a physical object and the emotional response that these places or things have generated in Mr. Mortensen. Tracks sixteen and seventeen, "munchen morning poem" and "treblinka poem", are good examples of how individual pieces are distinct from each other. They also clearly show how different sounds and tonal qualities are capable of eliciting different emotional reactions on the part of the listener.
"munchen morning poem" is series of notes, tones, chords, and silences taken from an octave in the higher range of the keys. The bright, sometimes sharp, sounds made me think of the clean brightness of an early morning where the light is so clear that everything appears to have sharp edges. Yet, I've always felt rather uncomfortable listening to those same notes, finding their pitch rather jarring and disconcerting. They are almost too clean, too strong, and because of that leave me with a sense of disquiet. It's sort of like the descriptions you read of somebody or something being so beautiful that looking at them hurts your eyes, and in the end you're left with the impression that they or it are something you don't really want to have anything to do with.
Of course I'm quite prepared to admit that when it comes to this piece I could be influenced by my own preconceived feelings for the city in question. Munich Germany has always, unfairly or not, brought Nazi Germany to mind for me, and that can't but colour how I react to anything representing it on an emotional level. Yet, the choice Mr. Mortensen made by utilizing the upper end of the scale, was to use sounds that were cutting and sharp - ones that didn't offer any of the softness that would come with a peaceful or calm early morning.
In contrast to "muchen morning poem", "treblinka poem" utilizes the deeper more resonant end of the keyboard. Instead of the sharp and clean sound of the previous "poem" here we are given a glimpse of darkness. Judging by the sustain of the sound during the opening the dark has been present for a while and might not be in any hurry to lift. Hearing it I can hear the sense of loss that must permeate any region that played host to a death camp during World War Two, and, before it had even a chance to heal, was immediately swallowed by an equally corrupt regime in the shape of Stalinist Russia.
But Mr. Mortensen brings an element of hope to the poem as near the end of the piece he begins to move up the scale into notes and sounds that are clearer. It's as if maybe the clouds, which have covered them for so long, are finally beginning to lift from the city, and the country. As a new generation is born that is untouched by the past and has an opportunity to shape a different future, so the music reflects both a past that should never be forgotten, and the hope that it won't be repeated.
While the listener's reactions can't help but be shaped by the feelings they already have for a subject, the music that Mr. Mortensen creates in each of his pieces stimulates those feelings through the emotions that each of them generates. Without his recording of what he felt, and his ability to transmit those emotions so clearly, the listener wouldn't be given the opportunity to explore their own.
In a book of his poetry Viggo Mortensen referred to what the does with his poems and photography as recording what goes on around him. With Time Waits For Everyone he shows that he's not limited to words and pictures on paper as a means of expressing the record of what he sees around him, and that he's equally capable of doing so with just a piano. Utilizing sound, tone, and even the silences that mark the end of one note and the beginning of the next. he has created a beautiful collection of tone poetry.
(Originally posted February 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.