A Picturesque, Darkly Kaleidoscopic Album of New Wendy Griffiths Piano Music
Wendy Griffiths is best known as the primary songwriter, lead singer and one of three keyboardists in brilliantly shapeshifting New York art-rock band Changing Modes. In addition to her eleven records with the band, she’s also a prolific classical composer who’s written ballet music, string quartets and works for piano. The latest album of Griffiths’ instrumental music is Views from the Keyboard, a collection of solo piano pieces played by Elizabeth Rodgers, streaming at youtube.
Unsurprisingly, these short pieces reflect the same outside-the-box sensibility, quirky humor and vividness of Griffiths’ rock songs. Rodgers plays with grace and fluidity throughout a series of often labyrinthine idiomatic twists which flash by in a split second. This is 21st century composition as entertainment, informed by a sensibility that’s sometimes phantasmagorical, at other times irresistibly comedic. The intensity of the music on both sides of the emotional spectrum rises as the album goes along.
Three Views From Mexico has hints of flamenco modalities, ragtime, Webern and a brisk close-harmonied stroll which could be Mompou in a rare high-energy moment. A suite of miniatures, Rogue Taxidermy includes the tiptoeing, playfully sotto-voce Consider the Hortle; the deviously phrased Tortitude; the evocatively kinetic, neoromantic Moth Frog; the delightful Meowl; Lone Wolf, a defiantly individualistic vignette; Lunar Mothfish, a slightly turbulent mini-nocturne; the determined March of the Pengupines and finally, the disquietingly warped Zebra Prawn Blues.
The Sheltering Suite comprises My Corona, a light-fingered romp which is about neither beer nor a vintage Toyota; the self-explanatory Jumping Bean; Climbing the Walls, which is more troublingly self-descriptive; Dream Song, which is essentially a synopsis of the whole album; an opaque Lamentation; and the mutedly strutting Danse Mechanique.
Christmas, 1989 appears to have been less than festive time. Griffiths’ Seven Places in America captures Los Angeles as thisclose to frantic (a recent portrait, maybe?); paints Miami as a danse macabre; and uncovers a sinister poltergeist amid San Francisco fog. In fifty-seven seconds, New York decays from steady forebearance to a somber, unresolved lull, while the picture brightens considerably for Maine’s Isle au Haut and the bluesy solidity of Chicago.
The concluding suite, Four Strong Winds begins with the icy pointillisms and clusters but also the friendlier sway of Boreas. Zephyr hops and skips between blithe and brooding; Eurus comes across as a moody, insistent Balkan dance. Rodgers closes the album with Notos, an early Ligeti-flavored coda. Much like Griffiths’ rock band, this is as charming as it is disconcerting.
Changing Modes are playing Bar Freda, 801 Seneca Ave. in Ridgewood on Nov 13 at 8 PM; cover is $10. Take the M to Seneca Ave.