Composer Martin Scherzinger releases his second album with New Focus, Scherzinger Etudes, focusing on his piano etudes. Performed here by pianist Bobby Mitchell, Scherzinger describes these works as "a topological study of found musical sound," taking existing music by composers such as Brahms, Schumann, and Paganini, and putting them through "a hall of mirrors" to re-examine them from new angles and open our ears to their many possibilities.
|01||The Horse Is Not Mine, a Hobby Horse|
The Horse Is Not Mine, a Hobby Horse
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||2:28|
|02||Verso il capo|
Verso il capo
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||5:03|
|03||Fast zu sorglos|
Fast zu sorglos
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||2:20|
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||4:33|
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||2:06|
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||5:17|
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||3:11|
|08||Rondo à la Rondo|
Rondo à la Rondo
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||2:08|
|09||Paganini, Piano Hero|
Paganini, Piano Hero
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||5:06|
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||2:44|
|11||Mbele ni Nyuma|
Mbele ni Nyuma
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||3:56|
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||2:49|
|13||Mbiras de St. Gervais|
Mbiras de St. Gervais
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||4:48|
|14||Perso, ma felice|
Perso, ma felice
|Bobby Mitchell, piano||3:13|
|15||Verso il capo II|
Verso il capo II
|Bobby Mitchell, piano, Tom Rosenkranz, piano||10:33|
Composer and musicologist Martin Scherzinger brings a unique background to his work. Born and raised in South Africa, Scherzinger has made the vast realm of African musical traditions a focus of his research, both through deep investigation of original styles as well as an examination of how Western artists have engaged with, incorporated, and appropriated African music within their work. On this new release, featuring pianist Bobby Mitchell, we hear Scherzinger integrating two seemingly disparate musical worlds he was exposed to as a child – the European solo piano tradition and traditional African music. By manipulating and reordering material from Schumann, Brahms, Paganini, and Chopin and occasionally applying an “Africanized” rhythmic and motivic filter, Scherzinger reconciles his own musical youth while creating a fascinating hybrid.
Among Scherzinger’s axes to grind with the conventional Western understanding of music from Africa is a series of assumptions about the centering of rhythm, meter, and repetition over linear development and harmonic motion. He asserts that while this may accurately describe a surface level understanding of some African music, when one looks deeper, intricate mathematical patterning lies behind the organization of multiple parts and sections. His first release on New Focus, African Math, explored these ideas more explicitly through the lens of the piano trio. Here, by neutralizing some of the salient features of both African music (for instance, we are hearing this music on an equal tempered piano, not an instrument strongly associated with African music) and European piano music (many of the more linear types of harmonic progressions are rounded off to create cyclical structures), we hear similarities between the two we might not have noticed previously. Is it an imitation of a polyrhythmic cycle one might encounter readily in African traditional music, or music shaped by the lilt of a central European dance style?
The propulsive ostinato that opens into joyful arpeggiations in the opening track, The Horse Is Not Mine, a Hobby Horse, simultaneously suggests interlocking mallet instruments and the dynamism of implied counterpoint and registral voice leading in moto perpetuo textures.
The opening section of Verso il Capo, Verso il Capo II and Mbiras de St. Gervais hint at French Baroque style as well as spacious kora improvisations.
Some of the etudes lean more clearly in one direction or the other – Paganini, Piano Hero for instance is a more straightforward exploration of the famous Caprice theme and Occidentalism sounds like it could live in a collection of late Romantic character pieces.
Likembe-Liszt lives on the other side of the continuum, referencing a lamellophone common in the Congo and Uganda. And yet, underlying all of these examples are hints of a diverse sensibility from the other end of Scherzinger’s stylistic spectrum.
More often than not in Scherzinger’s fresh approach we can hear these influences at once, illuminating not only his personal exploration of common ground between the musics in his past but also the links between seemingly disparate musical traditions. Bobby Mitchell’s deft navigation of these stylistic allusions is seamless – rhapsodic when the texture calls for it and equally able to find the right touch and articulation to bring syncopated rhythms alive.
– Dan Lippel
Recorded by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, NY
Design: Wills Glasspiegel
Bobby Mitchell is an American pianist whose interests are embedded in the here and now of music as performance art, as well as the more standard classical repertory of centuries past. A frequent performer of new and rarely heard works, his interests lie mainly with the contemporary music canon and combining these works with the standard repertoire in an illuminating fashion. An instrumentalist who is not afraid to cross the traditional boundaries of programming and performance practice, he is active as a solo and collaborative concert pianist on modern and historical instruments and is also experienced in the fields of improvisation, composition, and conducting.
He has performed extensively in the Americas, across Europe, Asia, South Africa, and the Middle East, and recent highlights include concerto performances with Philippe Herreweghe and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. Venues include the Menuhin Festival (Gstaad, Switzerland), the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona), and Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Washington D.C.). He has otherwise performed as concerto soloist with orchestras and new-music ensembles in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Significant solo activities include numerous performances of Frederic Rzewski’s epic 36 Variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated! and frequent work with composers such as Frederic Rzewski, Steve Reich, and Louis Andriessen as well as regular work with peer composers of his own generation. Rzewski recently wrote a solo piano work called Winter Nights for Bobby, who also gave the USA premiere of Rzewski’s Songs of Insurrection and was involved in the Dutch radio’s initiative to record Rzewski’s entire novel-for-piano The Road.
Bobby records for the Alpha / Outhere music label (Haydn on an original pianoforte), VDE-Gallo (Schumann live in San Francisco), and New Focus Records in New York (Martin Scherzinger's solo piano works). His YouTube channel has become an Internet phenomenon for classical and improvised piano music, with more than half-a-million views. Primary teachers include Nelita True, David Kuyken, Robert Hill, Rudolf Lutz, Stephen Perry, and Bart van Oort.
He is artistic director of the piano festival En Blanc et Noir, Festival International de Piano Robert Turnbull, a five-day celebration of live piano music that takes place every July in Lagrasse, France.
Martin Scherzinger's research specializes in sound studies, music, media and politics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with a particular interest in the music of European modernism and after, as well as African music and transnational musical fusions. His research includes the examination of links between political economy and digital sound technologies, the poetics of copyright law in an international frame, the relation between aesthetics and censorship, the sensory limits of mass-mediated music, the mathematical geometries of musical time, and the history of sound in philosophy. This work represents an attempt to understand what we might call contemporary "modalities of listening;" that is, the economic, political, metaphysical, and technological determinants of both mediated and (what is perceived as) immediate auditory experience.http://martinscherzinger.org/
To say that Martin Scherzinger's second album for New Focus is fascinating conceptually could be taken to imply it's less striking at the level of pure sound. Nothing could be more untrue: yes, Scherzinger Etudes does dazzle on intellectual grounds, but the collection is as satisfying when experienced in its musical form with details about its genesis stripped out. That there is a striking conceptual dimension shouldn't surprise given Scherzinger's background. An Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt, he was born and raised in South Africa and as such has dedicated a major part of his study to Africa's musical traditions. Paired with that is a concomitant study of how Western artists have engaged with them in their own work. Both converge in a strikingly original way on Scherzinger Etudes when existing material by composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, and Paganini are subjected to a kind of prismatic refracting.
Performed by pianist Bobby Mitchell (with fellow pianist Tom Rosenkranz joining him on one of the fifteen pieces), the worlds of European solo piano and traditional African music meet, with the rhythms of the latter often giving a dynamic momentum to the material. Scherzinger, however, is quick to address the bias towards rhythm that many a listener brings to any music with an African dimension; his view is that while rhythm is inarguably a central element in its music, it's also extremely complex and nuanced.
In putting the works of those aforementioned composers through a “hall of mirrors” of a particular kind, new pieces result, ones that might bear vestigial traces of their origins but for the most part sound like novel creations. What the composer describes as “a topological study of found musical sound” ends up sounding more like a dazzling set of originals by Scherzinger. While one could persuasively argue, as Dan Lippel does in notes written for the release, that the opening part of Mbiras de St. Gervais, for example, hints at “French Baroque style as well as spacious kora improvisations,” one might also hear the piece as a fully integrated original that integrates Western and African musical realms in seamless manner.
Many of the pieces exude urgency and high energy, especially when Scherzinger assembles them into multi-tiered tapestries; a mood of ecstasy also gives certain pieces a jubilant, even rhapsodic charge. The graceful elegance of the opening to Verso il capo calls to mind Bach's Goldberg Variations; the rhythmic drive propelling what comes after, however, sounds like some heady mix of ragtime and African music. Errata Erratica likewise alternates between ruminative passages and others racing helter-skelter. That one passage so eloquent can sit cozily alongside another so earthy speaks to Scherzinger's daring. Connections one wouldn't have imagined possible reconcile in these constructions.
The kind of splendour one hears in Schumann and Brahms surfaces in Fast zu sorglos, their styles and sensibilities present as faint echoes; the trills that make Mbiras de St. Gervais so enticing similarly draw a connecting line to the Western solo piano tradition. Anything but a dry academic exercise, Kinderreim touches the heart with its delicate folk strains, while Chopi-Chopin and Occidentalism intersperse more than a few moments of lyrical beauty amidst vivacity. The rollicking dance swing powering Likembe-Liszt clearly reflects a strong African influence, though again that's merely one facet of many. The coup de grace Verso il capo II arrives at album's end, with Rosenkranz joining Mitchell for a ten-minute ride that's so rousing it bewitches.
My bet is that one could play Scherzinger Etudes for another without sharing any of the details about its background and the person would be no less impressed than were everything about its concept divulged beforehand. Of course no account of the hour-long release would be complete without acknowledging Mitchell's commanding realization. Scherzinger's clearly fortunate to have an interpreter of such towering ability performing these pieces, not to mention someone whose sensibility is so evidently attuned to his own.
— Ron Schepper, 9.21.2021
This second album on the New Focus label from the composer Martin Scherzinger spotlights the piano prowess of Bobby Mitchell, where the existing work of Brahms, Schumann, Chopin and Paganini is put through Scherzinger’s filter of creativity.
“The Horse Is Not Mine, a Hobby Horse” opens the listen with flowing keys that are both complicated and mesmerizing in their swift beauty, and this very graceful approach continues to the French Baroque style of “Verso il capo”, as well as the unpredictable and adventurous “Errata Erratica”.
In the middle, “Likembe-Liszt” dances with playfulness that also embraces calmer ebbs, while “Paganini, Piano Hero” brings both tension and warmth to a meticulous landscape. “Gigue”, one of the best selections, then rumbles with a profound technical approach that few could parallel.
At the end, “Perso, ma felice” offers a cautious and emotive landscape that’s quite stirring in its sublime nature, and “Verso il capo II” exits the listen with Mitchell and Tom Rosenkranz contributing their inimitable key skills to an ideal finish to a well crafted effort.
An ideal listen for those with an ear towards piano music, Scherzinger occasionally injects ‘Africanized’ rhythmic and motivic manipulation to these European rooted compositions that showcase an inestimable hybrid experience.
— Tom Haugen, 8.29.2021
What New Music can be has become extended, become more opened up over the past 50 years so that one can never quite know what to expect next. That is not a bad thing. In the case of the music up today it is a very good thing. Scherzinger Etudes (New Focus Recordings FCR295) reads the type at the bottom of the cover. Look further inside at the liners and you verify that the composer is Martin Scherzinger (to spell out first and last names) and the pianist performing the Etudes is Bobby Mitchell. All that may mean something to you or possibly not--it depends of course on your. personal circle of compositions and artists.
What matters here of course is the specific composition and performance, both of which are outstanding. The music is not what you might expect in that it is unmistakably of our time, yet not "Modern" in the genre specific capital /M/ sense. In the most obvious sense this is not "bleep bloop" rangy Serialism, which is what one expected to hear nearly universally years back. It is tonal and it often has the full-expression keyful of music that Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninov made their own. Yet the melodic-harmonic unfolding is more primal and post-Romantic, almost Folksy, Lisztian.
And most importantly the music sounds very comfortable being what it is, which is original and lyrically effusive while also being virtuoso oriented in the best pianistic sense. It is hard to play! And Bobby Mitchell sounds great in how he performs it with elan, with excitement.
The composer tells us in the liners that the music could be seen as a kind of "musique concrete topologique of found musical sound." By that he means that "These etudes are rewritings of the music of Schumann, Couperin, Paganini, Sgambati, Brahms and others." The music is subject to transformation as in a kind of musical "hall of mirrors" to give them a newness, a hearing "as it for the first time." Those insightful words help us undestand what the composer was after, and at the same time it does not at all take away from the originality of the music as we hear it. Not at all. And indeed the key is "as if for the first time," for that is absolutely the case.
It is an excellent example of how endless music can be. There is nothing new under the sun? No, we can never run out of possibilities and here is an unexpected one, a classic-in-the-making, an important work of interest to anyone who loves the piano, who loves the new, or for that matter, perhaps to anyone musical! Strongly recommended. Molto bravo!
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 7.19.2021
There is nothing unusual about the instrument chosen by Martin Scherzinger for the 14 solo Etudes heard on a New Focus Recordings release – it is the piano. But there is something unusual about the music itself, which in its own way is just as much a revisiting and rethinking of the past as is Grgić’s offering of Bach works on microtonal guitar. What Scherzinger does in these short works – and one slightly longer one requiring two pianists – is to juxtapose music by well-known Western composers with rhythmic and other material from Africa (Scherzinger was born in South Africa in 1975 and raised there). This could easily become just another multicultural mingling of disparate elements that do not fit together at all well, but Scherzinger is not looking for a sprinkling of “exoticism” (whatever that might mean in this context) but for a genuine hybridization of material, and manages in multiple cases to come up with works that are wholly engaging in their own right, whatever their provenance. There is plenty of recognizable thematic material here, from Brahms, Chopin, Paganini, Schumann and others. But there is also a considerable amount of what could be called “spicing” that comes partly from Africa and partly from Scherzinger’s personal way of thinking about methods of fitting disparate musical pieces together. The works’ titles are at times over-clever, and some may even be off-putting, not to mention obscure: The Horse Is Not Mine, a Hobby Horse; Fast zu sorglos; Mbele ni Nyuma; Mbiras de St. Gervais. But unlike much contemporary music, in which the titles must be analyzed and understood before listeners can hope to figure out what a composer is getting at, these works by and large speak to audiences on their own terms, whether or not someone hearing the disc knows to what the titles refer. Actually, in some cases, the referents are clear enough: Chopi-Chopin is a fascinating reconsideration of Chopin, while Paganini, Piano Hero explores a theme well-known from many other composers’ explorations of it. Likembe-Liszt, on the other hand, is scarcely Lisztian in any obvious sense, being Scherzinger’s attempt to convey, on the piano, the sound of the lamellophone, an instrument that uses tuned metal or bamboo tongues and is related to the jaw harp. Some rather self-referential titles among these Etudes give listeners a few things to think about even while listening to the music unfold under the highly skilled hands of pianist Bobby Mitchell. Among such pieces are Rondo à la Rondo and the more-or-less-fugue Errata Erratica. And then there are single-word-titled pieces that pretty much speak for themselves: Occidentalism, which is gently lyrical and rather pretty, and Gigue, which is strongly rhythmic but extends rather than exemplifies the dance form of its title. Also here are two separate pieces called Verso il capo, both of which sound a bit like extracts of the French Baroque: one for solo piano that runs five minutes and one of twice that length played by Mitchell and Tom Rosenkranz. It is sometimes a bit hard to figure out just where Scherzinger is going with a piece and just what he is trying to communicate – but because the Etudes are musically effective in and of themselves, the uncertainty does not seem like one of those puzzles sometimes created by contemporary composers with the apparent intent of mystifying the audience. Instead, what Scherzinger delivers is musical portraits of various kinds, their subject matter often but not always derived from Western music or musical styles, but their overall effect – and effectiveness – being tied to the skill with which Scherzinger adapts material from earlier composers to his own sensibilities, all the while producing pieces that are pianistically satisfying and, unlike so much of today’s music, worthy of being heard repeatedly simply for the pleasure of engaging with the material and the skillful way Scherzinger handles it.
Nothing is revealed about composer Martin Scherzinger in the booklet. He writes about the music here, "Probably best described as musique concrete topologique—or a kind of topological study of found musical sound— these etudes are re-writings of the music of Schumann, Couperin, Paganini, Sgambati, Brahms, and others. By placing these old pieces into a hall of mirrors—revealing them upside-down and back to front—we hear them all again, but as if for the first time." Some titles have an African ring to them, like `LikembeLiszt' and `Mbele ni Nyuma', but we're left without a clue as to their meaning; other titles are playful: `Errata Erratica' and `Fast zu sorgios' (fast to carefree?). The opening of `Kinderreim' instantly evokes Schumann's `Traumerei'. The textures are busy, full of countermelodies created incidentally from the accompaniment. Scherzinger respects the tonality of the original pieces and doesn't subject them to stubborn or wayward silliness. That said, what is the most impressive is Mitchell's handling of the writing; I'd bet good money that it doesn't lay well under the hands, but Mitchell plays it with spunk and ease. The one characteristic lacking in his playing is full-throated exuberance. For instance, the joyous, ringing `Likembe-Liszt', the most inventive piece in the bunch, needs ecstasy and abandon. In the end, though, the collection comes across as friendly, technically challenging, and not generally memorable glosses on the piano repertory.
— Stephen Estep, 11.10.2021
By combining scintillating piano playing with an intellectual background as dense as ironwood, this release more than justifies its one-of-a-kind status. The notion behind these “études” (the term doesn’t apply in any customary sense) is to play short piano pieces by famous composers upside down and backwards. What sounds like a gimmick is actually serious cultural business to the South African-born composer/musicologist Martin Scherzinger. To grasp where he’s coming from, you can listen to a 40-minute interview on New Focus’s website (newfocusrecordings.com), which affords a deep dive into one man’s very complex thinking. We are in an intellectual realm I thought had vanished like the dodo with the demise of the avant-garde Darmstadt era and the ghosts of Xenakis and Stockhausen.
Why is it intellectually intriguing to play Brahms, Couperin, Paganini, Liszt, et al. upside down and backwards? To the ear, the result is a jumble of notes very little different from rewinding a music tape with the sound on or watching a film backwards. In other words, there is no conventional enjoyment to be had, and the experimental rewards tend to be sketchy once you have caught on to Scherzinger’s method. What a skeptic might dismiss as a tricky gimmick the composer refers to as musique concrete topologique. The “concrete” part refers to how the eye is forced to see the physical score differently when the printed page is upside down. The “topological” part refers to how conventional Western music, deprived of melody, harmony, and forward motion in the usual sense, becomes a strange foreign map, and presumably a fascinating one to Scherzinger.
As pianist Bobby Mitchell (aided by a second pianist, Tom Rosenkranz, in the last étude, titled Verso il capo II) races through these 15 predominantly Allegro pieces, he’s spectacularly adroit. Liszt and Paganini don’t become easier when played upside down and backwards. The effect is often of a madcap Moto perpetuo. You can appreciate this release on those terms, and if you have a bent for historical musical forms, you will recall the palindrome madrigals from Renaissance Italy and Bach’s ability to use inversion and retrograde contrapuntal devices. Even so, a few études at a time was my ration; this is a lot like musical Jabberwocky.
At the New Focus website there are some revealing remarks not included with the album. For example, “The opening section of Verso il Capo, Verso il Capo II and Mbiras de St. Gervais hint at French Baroque style as well as spacious kora improvisations. Some of the études lean more clearly in one direction or the other—Paganini, Piano Hero, for instance, is a more straightforward exploration of the famous Caprice theme and Occidentalism sounds like it could live in a collection of late-Romantic character pieces.”
The most typical rationale behind the avant-garde is to make us see or hear differently, challenging expectations in various ways that seem outlandish to outsiders but fascinating to the exponents. Scherzinger’s motivation lies along this general drift, but his primary background is in indigenous African music, about which he speaks with excited enthusiasm. On the one hand he is absorbed in the mathematical complexity of African rhythms (there’s a style of Ugandan tribal music, he says, that sometimes reaches 600 beats per minute), while on the other hand he is distressed by the “colonialization” by which Western music invaded and usurped indigenous music, usually in simplistic form. Thus that magnificent Ugandan tradition is fading, while the Ugandan national anthem is Western and trite.
This perspective lends a defiant air to these études, although nothing is explicitly stated. Scherzinger offers instead the notion that hearing Western music upside down and backwards is like a return to childhood innocence, and he quotes the elite cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who writes, “For the child, it is just as obvious to walk backward as forward.” This is a dubious observation to begin with, but the “naturalness” of these jumbled études is much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s return to the state of nature and his exaltation of Homo sapiens prior to the corrupting influence of civilization.
With that in mind, Scherzinger isn’t inverting the score in order to bring out a new aspect of contrapuntal inversion or retrograde variations. He extols the absence of formal devices, melody, harmony, and so on. What remains is quite abstruse, the pure mathematical connections between notes, reminiscent of his mathematical view of African music. As a viewpoint, this one has integrity, and I appreciate how New Focus gave Scherzinger a place to express his perspective—the label previously released an album by him devoted to African musical issues that I haven’t heard.
The composer’s notes printed inside the cardboard sleeve are brief but pithy. The recorded sound is excellent, and I’ve already praised the virtuosic performances. If my description has given you a clear image of what this release is like, I must add that only hearing is believing.
— Huntley Dent, 3.28.2022