Rob Collier – Ten Simple Pieces for Piano (2016)
Within the fields of avant-garde and experimental music, questions of locality, operation, and definition can be elusive. How do we understand and categorize the terms (or parameters) of musics with such broad senses of possibility and realization? How do we know what they do, and where they sit? The answers are often allowed to rest with context and through a series of signifiers – we know where to find it (labels, venues, etc) and roughly what it sounds like. We approach through a lens. What if we denied ourselves the luxury? What if we started from scratch every time, asking how a music operates, where it sits, and what it is, and did so without presumption? This is what I was forced to do when I encountered Rob Collier’s Ten Simple Pieces for Piano.
Collier is a pianist and composer based in Louisville. The cassette is his first release. Though the piano has an undeniable centrality in the history of music – avant-garde or otherwise, an album of simple solo pieces for the instrument isn’t exactly what you expect to find on a small cassette label these days. It sparked my curiosity. As I sat down to listen, I found myself surprised. Though there some overlaps with territories of composition marked by figures like Arvo Pärt, Harold Budd, Hans Otte, and Collier’s fellow Louisville native Rachel Grimes, there also seemed to be something else bubbling under the surface – a challenge. It made me question were the works sat, and how comfortable I should be with my presumptions about them.
It’s important to distinguish between aesthetics and practice. Most people wouldn’t intuitively presume Collier’s ten short pieces to be either avant-garde or experimental from the way they sound – they are warm, inviting, and strangely familiar, but if we inquire after their operation, proximity, and the practice from which they grew, we can see them in a different light. The avant-garde often works as an intervention with our presumptions. It represents a progressive or alternate view of conceptual possibility and structural relationships – be those internal, or broadly contextual. It does not define an aesthetic or what it intervenes with. It can sound like nearly anything, and intervene with anything, including itself. Operation and action are the crucial factors of definition. Collier’s practice is discrete. It does not challenge the context of music, or the listener in sweeping terms. Its sounds don’t shake you to the core. They don’t set out to. Collier’s challenge is internal – asking what is necessary, what these arrangements of notes amount to, and where the results might lay. In so doing, he pushes away the static, and asks us to face these questions ourselves.
Collier’s journey began two years ago when he began stripping ornamentation, and rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic complexity from his work, attempting to reduce compositions to a structural skeleton – only those elements essential for them to function. The recordings for Ten Simple Pieces for Piano grew from this process. In Collier’s own words, each the result of a systematic construction and deconstruction of a pattern; a repeated melodic figure but with different rhythmic or metric emphasis; a repeated melodic figure against changing harmony. The results are at once beautiful, intriguing, and unsettling, which despite their simplicity and repetitions, manage to defy anticipation.
An exciting consequence of Collier’s practice relates to the democracy of access and dissemination of his works. As they began to take form, he realized that almost anyone familiar with the piano could play them. He set out to make transcriptions available as a principle point – some leaving aspects of their determination open to the player. This action denies his own renderings as the definite form, and limits his control over his work. He offers them to everyone, and in so doing a contentiously evolving life – enabling the endless and unpredictable potential of what these pieces might hold. This cassette is now only one of their many forms.