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Seth Horvitz

Eight Studies for Automatic Piano
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Eight Studies for Automatic Piano
  • Completely brilliant, brain-boxing suite of piano minimalism from Seth Horvitz, inspired by the works of James Tenney, Ligeti, Charlemagne Palestine and Conlon Nancarrow. The aim of Eight Studies was apparently to use simple computer-aided compositional pieces to “test the limits of human perception and machine precision”; it was performed by a Yamaha Disklavier C7 without the presence of a single human being, and recorded live; indeed, it’s a work that questions the very nature of “live”. It’s pointless to go into too much depth about the techniques deployed – the curious can download an in-depth Listener’s Guide from the LINE website – but to take just one example, ‘Study No.2: An Approximate Series of Approximate Harmonic Series’ finds Horvitz (or at least his electronic avatar) introducing a basic repeating shape and systematically layering it, transposing it, and rhythmically offsetting it against itself. Then, in Reichian style, the length of each repeating shape is incrementally shortened, producing a rhythmic phasing process. It’s huge credit to Horvitz that his rigorously mathematical approaches to composing nonetheless yield richly melodic music, lyrical and addictive. Once you’ve digested this remarkable album, you’ll never think of the piano the same way again.

  • This is a case in which I went into listening to the album with some trepidation.  While I’m no stranger to extremely conceptual works, knowing that this was based upon heavily programmed graphic piano scores, and that also that it included a link to a downloadable “listener’s guide,” I was concerned it was going to be a matter of concept over enjoyment.  Thankfully, that wasn’t an issue at all.

    After quickly glimpsing at the 20 page guide and finding out this partially represents Horvitz’ Masters thesis in Electronic Music and Recording Media, I made the conscious decision to listen to the album at first without any sort of supplementary knowledge, to judge it purely as a musical piece first, and then to focus on the esoteric details later.

    The entire work is a concert performance using a Yamaha grand piano, sequenced via MIDI into tight, inhumanly precise patterns and melodies, all of which utilize different conceptual structures.  The result is an odd amalgamation of the organic, natural sounding piano notes in a concert hall setting, but being driven an overly precise mechanical construct that completely changes the presentation and nature of the compositions.

    For example, the mostly mid-register notes of “Study No. 13:  Echoes”  plays with the ideas of echoes:  while the notes are allowed to echo on their own in natural space, the programming also forces echoing, repetitive notes that descend in dynamic, repeating the previous note at a lighter volume again and again.  The extremely tight clusters of sounds on “Study No. 29:  Tentacles” bounce around in some manner of structured chaos.  At times it sounds as if a human could play along, but then the short and clipped groupings make that an impossibility.

    “Study No. 1:  Octaves, Systematically Filled and Folded” is perhaps my favorite piece on here, and it also stands out as the most unique sounding.  While it features drastically shifting tempos and a “constructed binary form,” I’ll say it reminds me of something far more pedantic.  It’s a dead ringer for the sound effects on the old Galaga arcade game, which I have always loved.  Regardless of its complex underlying structure, the fact that this grand piano is manipulated to sound like early digital computer sounds alone makes it a unique and compelling work.

    The long closer, “Study No. 99:  Strumming Machine,” obviously references Charlemagne Palestine’s work, but takes the same idea into a very different realm.  While Palestine’s work was heavily dependant upon, but limited to, the human performer, Horvitz is able to surpass that limitation via cold electronic precision.  While the pacing is different, the overlapping tones and reverberations that defined Palestine’s composition can still be heard, though of a distinctly different color, making it a different, but no less fascinating, variation on the same theme.

    Admittedly, while I find this kind of intellectual work fascinating, I have such a limited repertoire when it comes to music theory and the like that a lot of the descriptions included with these pieces went right over my head.  But, that’s why this is a great album:  I didn’t need to be able to deconstruct the complexities of the work to enjoy it, I could do so simply at face value.

  • … By making it automatic you can play the most crazy pieces, beyond human control. Through the website of Line you can download the scores to the pieces, and more notes about the project. Always nice to watch and read such things, even if one doesn’t always understand what this is about… Horvitz didn’t set out to program the automatic piano ‘to play as many notes as in humanly impossible’. In some cases, such as in ‘Tentacles’ or ‘Strumming Machine’ this is surely the case, but in ‘Bells’ its not. But that piece has a bell-like precision to one key played. All eight pieces are from the world of modern classical music, a far cry from the original Line releases, but perhaps also a logical expansion. I thought it was a great release of some interesting piano music in the realm of computers: just exactly what we like Line for.
    (Vital Weekly, NL)

  • Seth Horvitz is perhaps better known for his work as Sutekh which is a million miles away from this interesting album that Line has just released. Here he programmed an automatic piano to play some incredibly complex (and fast in places) pieces. This was performed live musicianless with a piano on stage! An interesting concept for sure and the music is as interesting. When it started I thought it was just some random avant garde tinkles but then structures do start to appear and you can’t help but start to admire the precision involved. I guess aided by a computer it would be more precise as you’ve lost the scope for human error. But there’s some hypnotic composition here which you can’t help but enjoy. It’s one of those rare records that makes you want to hear what’s coming up next which is always a good thing. A thoroughly interesting release though not a particularly easy listen.

  • The leap from producing rhythmic electronic music to player piano compositions isn’t a large one: both use sequencers to map events in time. Eight Studies finds Seth Horvitz aka glitch/microhouse producer Sutekh following in the footsteps of Wolfgang Voigt, whoseFreiland Klaviermusik of last year paired wildly dissonant chord clusters on player-piano with occasional kickdrum. It’s not Horvitz’s first foray into the ‘classical’ realm, last year’s On Bach took that crown, but this hems more closely to classical instrumentation than did that digital Wendy Carlos update.

    Recorded on a modern Yamaha C7 Disklavier Mark III, the sound is much richer than on that used by Nancarrow, and Horvitz’s studies more refined. Horvitzs is less concerned with throwing us into the maelstrom of inhuman unplayability, as Nancarrow frequently does, but rather to focus on particular compositional aspects and perceptual effects, often of simplistic musical structures. ‘Study No. 21: Bells’ for instance centres on a repeated single note, around which competing intervals are stabbed, like Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata. ‘Study No. 29: Tentacles’ chops Debussy’s impressionistic flurries into meaningless repeated cul-de-sacs, delicate wisps made jagged. In ‘Study #2 An Approximate Series of Approximate Harmonic Series’ the piano sounds like resonant metal, sustained chords and rapid runs jangly like gamelan, while ‘No. 99: Strumming Machine’ explores the techno pulse of Voigt with more traditional minimalist patterns, building a drone from repeated bass notes.

  • … Eight Studies is a love letter to that world of keyboard wizardry from a musician who looks at it from the outside. This music re-applies the fundamentals of their (Ligeti, et al) sonic palettes to criteria alien to what created them, because Ligeti and Nancarrow, for all their innovative thinking, were curiously Old School in their ideas about what a composition must be: beginnings, middles, ends: sound serving their expressive agendas.

    With titles like “Sixteen Diatonic Glissandi Moving at Harmonic Rates” and “An Approximate Series of Approximate Harmonic Series”, Horvitz’s message is clear: these sounds don’t need music at all. The first study, “Arch Study for the Highest Eight Notes” riffs off Ligeti’s penchant for driving the high velocity pieces in his Piano Etudes towards abrupt endings by systematically running material up the piano until there is no keyboard left and the music topples off a ravine. But when Ligeti kept doing that, the sonic imperative became a compositional hook—a gestural ‘get out of jail free’ card—that Horvitz re-energizes.

    His brutally ‘secco’ notes serve no expressive function other than transforming the piano into a resonating chamber where percussive attack, if not exactly overriding pitch, is at least its equal. “Octaves, Systematically Filed and Folded” comes at the same idea from the other direction. Flourishes straight out of Liszt are overlaid and phased until the musical rhetoric crumbles. Sounds have been separated from their source — always a great way to make what may, or may not be, music.
    (The Wire, UK)

  • As I expected coming into this release, it’s unusual to hear such an expressive, vibrant instrument, traditionally most effective when channelling the fluid and natural playing style of its performer, turned into an automatic performance machine. Eight Studies… flits between moments that are seemingly within a human’s technical capabilities to those that are undeniably outside it. Arguably, the release is most effective when exploring the latter, as it is during these moments that the listener is most strongly urged to question the piano’s most synonymous characteristics as an instrument, and their own presumptions about music and composition – it’s not so much the absence of imperfection in Eight Studies… that is so striking, but the actual presence of cold and mechanical perfection.

    With this in mind, “Study No. 99: Strumming Machine” (an obvious tribute to Charlemagne Palestine’s “Strumming Music”) is the most noticeable piece on display here. The computerised dynamics and tempo – completely unwavering and devoid of human error – allows Horvitz to expand on Palestine’s idea very effectively, placing the same small selection of pitches under relentless rapid fire until the listener becomes numb to the piano’s timbre and attack. “Study No. 1: Octaves, Systematically Filled and Folded” is another piece that pushes commonplace perceptions of “piano music”; moving through pitches at an unnatural speed, and sometimes verging on a smooth glissando up through the octaves.

    Four “forms” are explored throughout the record – idealized symmetrical form, constructed binary form, intuitive linear form and intuitive transformational form. It is by these forms that the piano is morphed from a musical instrument to a receptacle of mathematical process – a sonic testing lab, where calculations are brought to audial life, and the notion of “music” feels like a mere coincidental by-product. The album is said to have been recorded in an “immersive concert setting” – a teasing use of a location so tightly interweaved with the concepts of musical warmth and intimacy, asking the listener to question (along with the other questions already raised), what can be defined as a “live performance”, and what can be said to exist in the musical “now”. Great stuff.

  • … Back to Horvitz, it’s interesting to hear him doing new stuff, especially for computer-generated piano – a favoured medium of mine. He joins Wolfgang Voigt in the pantheon of techno – computer-piano producers, and sits alongside such heavyweights as Conlon Nancarrow and Rytis Mazulis. It’s not Horvitz’s first foray into the ‘classical’ realm, last year’s On Bach by Sutekh took that crown, but this hems more closely to classical instrumentation than did that digital Wendy Carlos update… First listen revealed a simplicity and minimalism not present in any of the works by those composers listed above. As the title implies, each track explores a specific idea, Horvitz keeping these particularly narrow.

  • (LIVE PERFORMANCE REVIEW) A veteran of the inaugural MUTEK lineup, Seth Horvitz is amongst a handful of artists including Atom Heart and Carsten Nicolai whose experimental practices have remained important references to the evolution of the festival over the last decade. Horvitz recently completed his MFA at Mills College and essentially presented his thesis research Eight Studies for Automatic Piano on intensely programmed scores for the Yamaha DC7 Mark III Disklavier. In perhaps the best moment of theatre of the entire festival, a besuited Horvitz began his performance by strolling across stage to turn on his piano and then disappeared into the shadows, not to be seen again. The work presents kind of a piano endgame that tested the perception of the audience while—given the scope of MUTEK—offering a timely examination of precision and ‘programming’. … the dense melodies literally wash over the keyboard while the projections offer a rudimentary visualization of the complexity of these pattern studies. Eight Studies for Automatic Piano was a treat to experience live, and there was something quite amazing about watching a precisely calibrated automaton work its magic in a concert hall setting.

  • With Eight Studies for Automatic Piano, Seth Horvitz presents the next chapter in a highly personalized and idiosyncratic musical journey. One could probably list on one hand the number of individuals who’ve first established themselves with a series of innovative electronic music releases (as Horvitz has done under the Sutekh alias) and managed a label (Context, in this case) and then enhanced their musical credentials with a return to higher education and a more formal study of musical composition (a recent MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College, which Horvitz added to the Bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Science he earned from UC Berkeley in 1995). In this particular case, Eight Studies for Automatic Piano is the project Horvitz produced for completion of his MA degree at Mill’s College.

    The recording itself, which was made during April 2010 at Mill’s College, is performed entirely by the Yamaha Disklavier C7 Mark III, in essence a computer-controlled player piano. In many ways the project is like a contemporary update on Conlon Nancarrow’s (1912-1997) infamous player piano compositions, whose technical demands often exceeded the performative abilities of the human pianist (hence the decision to produce the works for player piano). However disconcerting it might be to assume the role of spectator witnessing Horvitz’s pieces being presented in the concert hall (given that no human player is involved), no such discomfort arises for obvious reasons when the recording plays in one’s living room.

    The eight pieces fall within four categories: Idealized Symmetrical Form, Constructed Binary Form (wherein “a basic, repeating shape is introduced and systematically layered, transposed, and rhythmically offset against itself”), Intuitive Linear Form (“intuitively generated elements are introduced linearly, above a steady pulse”), and Intuitive Transformational Form (“systematic transformations of a basic, repeating shape are applied intuitively, sometimes haphazardly”). Two of the recording’s pieces are symmetrical in design, with “Study No. 14: Arch Study for the Highest Eight Notes,” for example, proceeding in reverse when it reaches its midpoint and thereafter mirroring the first half—an effect obscured by the insistent pulsing patterns of the keyboard’s uppermost eight notes, which, while steady, pulse at differing rates, though the symmmetrical character is clearly audible in the gradual acceleration with which the piece begins and the eventual deceleration with which it ends. Also symmetrical is “Study No. 4: Sixteen Diatonic Glissandi Moving at Harmonic Rates,” a short piece inspired by an instrument called the “Rhythmicon” (conceived by Henry Cowell in the late 1920s and built by Leon Theremin in 1931) and James Tenney’s Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow (1974), but again that formal design is camouflaged by what presents itself as a dense flurry of multi-directional cascades and runs.

    Though influenced by György Ligeti, “Study No. 13: Echoes” might remind certain listeners of Lennie Tristano’s solo piano studies in the piece’s rhythmically steady waterfalls of sixteenth notes. In “Study No. 21: Bells,” the unwavering repetition of an upper note gives the piece a pensive quality, and the relatively uncluttered design offers a welcome respite from the recording’s denser pieces. “Study No. 1: Octaves, Systematically Filled and Folded,” on the other hand, is a roller-coaster ride of ascending and descending octaves that gradually begins to resemble an experimental electronic piece as its patterns meld into one another until an unexpectedly bluesy episode emerges near track’s end. “Study No. 99: Strumming Machine” (the title a nod to Charlemagne Palestine’s 1974 Strumming Music) likewise unspools at a high velocity, spurred on by a twelve-note arpeggio that motorikally pulses at a rate of ten notes per second. In addition to a gradual increase in tempo, there’s an accompanying depression of the pedal, and as such the clear definitions of the notes grows ever blurrier as the minutes tick by.

    Each piece is composed in accordance with methodically worked-out formal principles, the technical details of which Horvitz has provided in comprehensive detail, not only in text form but graphical too. This makes the project a fascinating object of study, though it must needs be said that the listener, if so inclined, can just as easily disregard the accompanying material and experience the pieces as exercises in pure sound, even if in doing so a diminished awareness for the formal complexity of the project may result. Horvitz provides an exhaustive account of the developments occurring within “Study No. 2: An Approximate Series of Approximate Harmonic Series,” for instance, which makes it fairly easy for the listener to follow as the music plays, but one can also choose to simply hear it as a multi-layered exploration of ascending and descending patterns and tempo contrasts.

  • … Completely brilliant, brain-boxing suite of piano minimalism from Seth Horvitz, inspired by the works of James Tenney, Ligeti, Charlemagne Palestine and Conlon Nancarrow… It’s pointless to go into too much depth about the techniques deployed – the curious can download an in-depth Listener’s Guide from the LINE website – but to take just one example, ‘Study No.2: An Approximate Series of Approximate Harmonic Series’ finds Horvitz (or at least his electronic avatar) introducing a basic repeating shape and systematically layering it, transposing it, and rhythmically offsetting it against itself. Then, in Reichian style, the length of each repeating shape is incrementally shortened, producing a rhythmic phasing process. It’s huge credit to Horvitz that his rigorously mathematical approaches to composing nonetheless yield richly melodic music, lyrical and addictive. Once you’ve digested this remarkable album, you’ll never think of the piano the same way again.

  • … Eight Studies For Automatic Piano finds him creating modern classic works that are played in a live setting by machine operated piano’s. The albums tracks mix together beyond human precision, detailed note patter-nation, and often harmonic/rewarding sonic detail.

    All eight tracks were performed live on a Yamaha grand piano, which was sequenced via MIDI into tight, inhuman & machine like precise patterns that have both rhythmic, melodic and non-melodic qualities to them. … All the tracks take on the untiring and unflinching character of the machines that are play them, yet there’s also human touches with-in the harmonic and compositional elements of the tracks. … All told Eight Studies For Automatic Piano is an interesting experiment in  bonding  machine’s with that most human and often emotional of instruments- the piano.  Of interest to those who enjoy rhythmic, repetitive and pattern based piano works of the likes of Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, etc.

  • L’altra uscita in casa LINE è invece opera, incredibile a dirsi, di quel Seth Horvitz meglio conosciuto da addetti ai lavori e pubblico di riferimento come Sutekh, che per l’occasione, con una virata a 360 gradi, abbandona i territori abitualmente frequentati tra free jazz ed IDM, immergendosi in un multiforme e complesso incastro di pezzi per pianoforte: composto e suonato (si fa per dire, visto che si tratta di un piano programmato) interamente su uno Yamaha C7 Disklavier Mark III, Eight Studies For Automatic Piano è un album centrato su specifici aspetti di composizione ed effetti percettivi legati a strutture musicali di varia articolazione: dallo studio di una singola nota (Study No.21: Bells) alle modulazioni sequenziali che si dipanano in una struttura proteiforme (Study No.29: Tentacles), dall’esplorazione del saliscendi armonico (Study No.2: An Approximate Series of Approximate Harmonic Series) fino all’architettura della ripetizione che riecheggia gli studi dello Charlemagne Palestine di “Strumming Machine” (Study No. 99: Strumming Machine). Ispirato al lavoro di James Tenney, György Ligeti, Charlemagne Palestine e Conlon Nancarrow, “Eight Studies For Automatic Piano” è un lavoro di raffinata indagine su questioni molto calde nel panorama teorico contemporaneo, come la performatività live ed il concetto di “vita” musicale. Metodi, processi, pensiero ed influenze in discussione vengono altresì esposti in un illuminante mini-saggio (comprensivo di spartiti grafici) accluso. (8) ad entrambi i lavori.
    (Blow Up, Italy)

  • Man stelle sich vor, das Licht im Konzertsaal geht aus, das Publikum raschelt noch ein letztes Mal umständlich mit den Programmheftchen – der ostentative Räusperer soll hier auch nicht unerwähnt bleiben – das Licht geht wieder an und der ruhmbetupft begnadete Pianist zieht seine Tastenzauber einen nach dem anderen aus den schlanken Fingern. In diesem Falle nicht so ganz richtig, das Piano spielt hier solo, alleine und midigetrieben, an der einen oder anderen Stelle seine technischen Schwächen, mit Stakkatokaskaden die Anatomie sprengenden tonalen Abenteuer schwer vertuschen könnend. Gewollt oder nicht, die Präzision hat eben nicht nur Vorteile, das herrenlose Instrument hingegen kann mit vierzehn Fingern beeindrucken, so es denn will und dennoch, wir beklatschen, mächtig den Kopf gewaschen, nach exakt den immer gleichen 45 Minuten und 40 Sekunden den Komponisten für seine Idee, nicht für seine brav durchtaktende Technik. Seth Horvitz, dem Saal auch unter seinem aka Sutekh bekannt, hat die acht Tracks des Albums in der Littlefield Concert Hall in Oakland mit einem Yamaha Disklavier C7 Mark III ohne Publikum aufgenommen. Je weiter man sich in die CD hineinwagt, desto weniger kann man sich bei der sich steigernd aufdrängenden Vorstellung, dem Schmunzeln entziehen, wie ein eifriger Hammermechanikdrücker wohl aussehen möge, anlässlich dieser partiell hochakrobatischen Großtaten. Es sind dann auch einige ruhigere Passagen vertreten. Ein unnötiger, geschmacksgetrübter Witz also? Im Gegenteil, ein bewundernswürdiges Experiment mit erstaunlichen Klangergebnissen und auch ein, zwei, mitunter drei kleinen, ein wenig hervorgestreckten Mittelfingern.
    (De:Bug, Germany)

  • Impossible not to think of Nancarrow while listening to Horvitz’ collection though in terms of the actual music heard, there seems to be a sliding toward Reich (with, as noted in the text one can read here Tenney serving as intermediary). Not sure if I’m imposing foreknowledge, but the use of a Disklavier imparts a subtle amount of cleanliness, if not slickness, to the proceedings that’s mildly offputting; my analog soul prefers some irregularities and roughness that a paper roll and metal and wood piano can supply. Given that, though, the intricacies of the compositions are impressive and sonically overwhelming in the sense of the impossibility of a human to manage these scores with such precision. An yet, one wishes for more of a purely musical nature to balance the precision. Sometimes I had the impression of a mechanical Andriessen or Adams–much form, less of musical or, really, sonic interest. The barely-tamed wildness of Nancarrow is absent, subjugated to technical mastery. The final cut, “Strumming Machine”, clearly nods toward Charlemagne Palestine but refuses to acknowledge his excesses which, after all, are a large part of his most successful music. More grit, please.
    (just outside, US)

  • Doit-on vraiment vous présenter Sutekh, cet Américain dont les travaux techno sont appréciés tant en club que chez les amateurs de musiques plus “risquées”? Sa dernière œuvre devrait finir de convaincre les sceptiques en tous cas. Huit pièces pour piano automatique, ou comment faire vaciller la notion même de musicien avec un concerto dirigé entièrement par l’ordinateur. Sur scène, un piano seul, qui joue des notes avec la précision d’un grand maître. Seth Horvitz programme des instructions, souvent simples – il s’agit de notions de symétrie/asymétrie, de temps de réactions,… – et laisse le piano jouer sa partition. Le résultat amène le modern classical à un niveau de cristal d’une pureté folle, les notes s’envolent et forment des harmonies renversantes de rythme et de beautés cumulées. Eight Studies For Automatic Piano pose surtout la question de l’utilité finale du « performer ». Ce disque est, du moins intellectuellement, un point de non-retour : à partir du moment où l’instrument joue un récital inatteignable pour l’humain, avec le même degré de beauté, quelle est la place véritable du pianiste ? Où se trouve la musique dans le spectre du vivant ? A écouter impérativement.
    (Off The Radar, FR)

  • …il s’agit de l’enregistrement de 8 pièces musicales pour piano seul. J’insiste sur le le mot seul car c’est une œuvre mécanique, sans pianiste, composée pour un instrument midi capable d’être piloté par ordinateur. Une œuvre qui a été donnée à entendre en concert, elle a également accompagné une création du chorégraphe belge Brice Leroux, et a été enseignée au Mills College d’Oakland en Californie. Eight Studies for Automatic Piano est un exercice conceptuel qui s’inspire des travaux d’autres musiciens expérimentaux célèbres de Conlon Nancarrow à Charlemagne Palestine en passant par James Tenney ou Ligeti. C’est un travail tout à fait passionnant composé, selon les titres, autour d’une séquence d’octave, d’une note répétée, d’un arpège, d’un glissendo ou d’une petite phrase que Seth Horvitz copie, colle, déplace, transpose ou inverse. Vous pourrez trouver facilement sur le net le détail formidable et très précis de la conception de chacun de ces titres et des différentes théories musicales que l’auteur à cherché à embrasser. Mais l’important, la chose me semble t-il primordiale est que tout ceci ne soit pas qu’un travail théorique et aride, mais que ces compositions sonnent et soient belles et là la réussite me semble tout à fait éclatante. L’étude n°2 que nous écouterons ce soir est visible sur le site de You Tube. C’est assez amusant puisque vous y découvrirez un piano seul sur une scène et sous les projecteurs, une personne s’approche du piano pour, je suppose le mettre sous tension, puis repart avant que ne commence la musique. Au dessus de l’instrument vous vous verrez sur votre écran une barre virtuelle qui représente le clavier en mouvement. Et là on comprend très vite que l’œuvre n’est pas jouable par la main de l’homme, c’est également l’un des nombreux sujets qu’aborde le compositeur.
    (Tapage Nocturne, RadioFrance)