This is evident on Cipa’s fourth album, »Correlations (on 11 Pianos)«, and in its captivating diversity of moods. From »We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Listen«’s grand romance to »Fantasia On Bach«’s subtle elegance, via the almost comedic yet ghostly »Sitting On A Dead Piano, Trying To Find Some Notes That Work« to the deeply touching »I Wanted You To Know«, it’s a mesmerising, moving collection. Providing a distillation of the parallels to which the album’s title draws attention, its central theme is provided by four iterations of a piece called »Promenade«, a deceivingly simplistic melody which provokes a contrasting emotional response with each version.
»I find it fascinating how each piano is different from the next,« says the 30-year-old Munich-based composer. »Some instruments really open up your creativity. To play on a lot of different ones is the best way to come up with new ideas. Obviously, I really enjoy playing a proper Steinway or a Bösendorfer: you can control every aspect of your playing. But personally, I have nothing against a weird old piano that’s a bit honky-tonky, yet creates a certain atmosphere you could never manage on a perfect instrument. One time, I played in Budapest on a very old upright, and the sound of the instrument was fantastic. I chose to play with no microphones, and somehow it touched the whole audience so much that at least half of the people – including me, I’ll admit! – started crying in the middle of the concert.«
It’s this fascination which drives »Correlations«. Having begun playing at an early age – he started lessons at the age of six – Cipa launched his recording career in 2012 with a solo piano album, » The Monarch And The Viceroy«. Since then – beginning with 2014’s »All Your Life You Walk« – he has expanded his artistic range, collecting instruments and building his own studio, culminating in 2019’s »Retronyms«, an album he describes as »dedicated to the idea of creating my own sound world«. With this new release, however, he has decided to return, in a sense, to his roots. »I wanted to simplify the process,« he says, »by focusing again on the piano, but spreading the concept.«
For »Correlations«, Cipa carefully selected six grand pianos, three uprights, a square piano and a Rhodes. Each has its own distinct character: a 1975 C-Model Steinway, he says, »might be the most perfect instrument I’ve ever played on,« while he praises a 1981 Yamaha upright for its »soft and satiny« quality. He fell for one particular instrument, an 1834 Pleyel grand, the moment he touched its keys, its brittle sound provoking an immediate urge to record it, while an 1875 Broadwood grand, originally shipped to Germany from an English manor house, was chosen for its »historic wooden sound«. There’s also a worn-out, turn-of-the-twentieth-century Zierold grand that stands in the stairwell of the Wolfenbüttel Prinzenpalais’ main hall in Lower Saxony, Germany; a WWII-era Ritter upright left abandoned in an attic; and even an ancient instrument now used to display concert fliers, whose casing, he discovered, hid a filigree of spiderwebs.
Cipa notes that his decision to employ these instruments has sometimes provoked disbelief. For him, though, a piano offers far more than just a keyboard. Instead, he sees it as »a string and percussion instrument, the most versatile there is. I’ve always been an explorer, and it’s the most rewarding thing to look for sounds in the instrument that’s right in front of you.« His work, of course, has always been motivated by his curiosity. As a teenager, he briefly turned his back on the instrument, seating himself instead behind a drum set as his interests broadened to include pop, rock, electronic and ambient music. Even while later studying classical composition at Munich’s University of Music & Performing Arts, he found himself frustrated by convention, but rather than finding this inhibiting, he welcomed it as a challenge. »I think everybody who grows up playing classical music turns out a bit weird,« he laughs. »I found a way of being free of it, by playing in bands, experiencing youth culture in a punk, hardcore, DIY scene around the time I was 16-18, but also by searching for new things on my main instrument. This was what really got me going.«
Cipa embraces the eccentricities of each individual instrument, and he detects in this a subtle, socio-political message. »In all music,« he argues, »there should be elements of irritation and unpredictability, of not getting used to a certain idea. I want the listener to remain attentive and wary, to be creative, to make up their own mind. I always strive to stay mindful as a composer, not to fall in love with a concept that works: to find new possibilities, to work outside structures, to work against the system. We’re all too comfortably adjusted to algorithms. We need art that’s free and uncompromised.«
Another feature both creative and practical is Cipa’s decision to incorporate the recording process – or, as he calls it, »the moment« – into the album’s aesthetic. He and engineer Jan Brett kept their set up as simple as possible to remain flexible: »Promenade II«, for instance, was recorded on a Philipps cassette recorder, and »Promenade IV« on a mini-cassette recorder, while, for Promenade III«, they used an Assman Dimaphone, a 1954 device »where you use a magnetic vinyl record that can be rerecorded on. We simultaneously recorded with mics and the machine, then recorded the results through its speaker. I think it sounds magical.«
In a strange sense, process became part of the process. The sounds of the instruments themselves, like the metal plates of »Untitled«’s Rhodes piano, are integral to »Correlations«, as are those of the machines used to capture them. On »Promenade IV«, Brett can be heard switching the machine on and off, or fast-forwarding the tape past a snippet of Cipa practising Bach, and the shortcomings of a Nagra reel-to-reel were assimilated for the resulting, eerie decay. Cipa also prepared a 1898 Bechstein for the two »Sable Sonatinas« using Blu-tak, despite having restricted himself on previous recordings to manual techniques like plucking or strumming strings. Indeed, even the album’s titles document their genesis in one way or another. »I nearly always gave a piece a name directly,« he explains. »Sometimes I chose one which seemed fitting from a list I keep, like »We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Listen«, while some, like »Surges« or »Sitting On A Dead Piano, Trying To Find Some Notes That Work«, describe the piece itself or the moment of recording.«
As well as Cipa’s own Beatschuppen Studio in Munich, »Correlations« – which was mixed and mastered by Martyn Heyne – was recorded in two further locations: Die Villa, a cultural centre in Pinswang, a small Austrian village near the German border where he spent many of his childhood holidays, and the Prinzenpalais in Wolfenbüttel, which offers a beautiful wood-panelled concert hall and stores a number of restored antique instruments. »The guy who runs the place seems to be a real enthusiast who apparently has even more at home,« he jokes. »I have to check them out next time!«
Though it’s undeniably a forward-looking album, whose imaginative approach separates it from other »crossover« piano music released in recent years, Cipa’s choices lend the album an uncanny air of nostalgia. It is one that echoes the work of William Basinski and Ian William Craig, but also the multiple other influences that have helped shape it, from Egberto Gismonti to David Bowie, from The Beatles to Boards Of Canada. Ultimately it’s an intuitive collection which boldly blurs the boundaries between composition, performance and procedure.
»Intuition is an aspect of art that is currently rather underrated,« Cipa concludes. »I try to sharpen my sense for everything surrounding me every day – by listening to records, studying scores, reading books, watching movies, being political – so I’m able to make the right choice at the right moment. This album is basically the sum of a lot of these intuitively decided moments.« A showcase of the instrument’s infinite potential, »Correlations (on 11 Pianos)« is proof that Carlos Cipa can bring a still piano to life.