Review by Colin Clarke
PETER MANNING ROBINSON DOUBLE HELIX • Peter Manning Robinson (1refractor pn, 2pn) • HEART DANCE 20006 (2 CDs: 72:03)
Surfing the Sunrise1; Secret Sauce1; Moon Vines1; Fugitive Heart1; Catch Your Breath1; Dark Moon1; Invisible Highway1; Emergence1; Labyrinth of Petals2; Fresh Light2; Enigma2; Swimming with Ghosts2; Undying Spirit2; River of Mirrors2; Sweet Shadows2; Inside Out2
The “Refractor Piano™” is the result of Peter Manning Robinson’s time in the film industry, and the thought that what if the only sounds heard were of live instruments that only he played? How could those sounds be modified? The result is the “Refractor Piano™.” Initial results were via Robinson alone, and rather ungainly. It was co-developer Klaus Hoch who suggested condensing the technology down so it could all be controlled by a Steinway. Six years later, the combination of hardware and software that is the “Refractor Piano™” was born: basically, the sounds of the piano are refracted through electronics to create new sounds. A “sound environment” can be created for each individual piece, as heard in this creative album, Double Helix. The fast Fugitive Heart has a pulsing background (presumably a fairly rapid heartbeat) against which various metallic sounds create cross-currents, while a more recognizable piano sound riffs above. The sound environment for Surfing the Sunrise, the first track, is more expansive, as spiraling gestures suggest a headier space (Moon Vines is even more relaxed, warmer in its chosen harmonic basis), while Secret Sauce is positively manic. Running through all of this are Peter Manning Robinson’s excellent improvisation skills. The sense of foreboding from Invisible Highway is another example of the capabilities of the technology; highly effective, they use a cornucopia of “percussion” that, while sounding familiar, sometime sounds just far away from our norms that it becomes enriching and fascinating. The first disc ends with Emergence, a reflective, almost Modernist number that occasionally walks the tightrope between contemporary “modern” music (I am sure there is some Cage influence here) and contemporary jazz improv. Again, those whirling, spiraling upward gestures appear.
It is really quite remarkable that all of this music was created through one piano, even if it was aided and abetted by cutting-edge technology. The eight tracks of the first disc are nicely balanced by the eight discs of the second, but there the music is performed on a traditional acoustic Steinway. It does come as a bit of a shock to hear “straight” piano if one goes straight from one disc to the other; the track Labyrinth of Petals is every bit as gentle as its title implies. The music here has a Satie-like simplicity (Fresh Light seems to particularly lean in this direction; its harmonies even seem slightly Gallic). The track entitled Enigma is soft-edged jazz harmonically, with an “endless” melody; think of Birtwistle’s endless melodies, but within a much-softened context. A shadowy dance, Swimming with Ghosts cedes to a track with a related title, Undying Spirit, where the music is more floaty. The harmonic twists of Sweet Shadows invokes a depth of emotion that speaks from the heart.
The two discs complement each other nicely. In a sense, the “pure” second proves that Manning Robinson needs no bells and whistles for his music to move the listener; instead, it is almost as if the expanded sonic vocabulary opens doorways in his mind. That he creates a particular sonic environment for each track on that first disc is entirely laudable; it shows an intelligent way of dealing with the expansion of choice. The two discs show two different sides of the same coin that is Peter Manning Robinson. This is fabulously beautiful, inventive music, well recorded. Colin Clarke