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Benoit Delbecq's 'Weight Of Light' Shows How Mysterious Prepared Piano Can Sound

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pianists have long tinkered with the sound of their instrument, pushing thumbtacks into the felt hammers for a honky-tonk effect or laying paper across grand piano strings for a buzzy, distorted sound. Composer John Cage took such tinkering to a new level and started using the term prepared piano. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says French pianist Benoit Delbecq shows how mysterious prepared piano can sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Nowadays, there are many adept players at prepared piano, where the timbre of individual notes is altered by inserting small pieces of wood, rubber or metal between a piano's strings or perhaps laying something on top of or even applying tape to the strings. Preparing a piano turns it into a pocket orchestra of tuned and untuned percussion. It can make you hear even the sound of untreated notes with fresh ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT DELBECQ'S "ANAMORPHOSES")

WHITEHEAD: Among prepared piano players, few conjure an air of mystery like France's Benoit Delbecq. He conceives his keyboard pieces partly in visual terms, starting with drawings that may resemble advanced geometry homework, studies in shapes and proportion. Then comes a notated outline to guide an improvisatory performance. One of those drawings graces the cover of Delbecq's new solo album, "The Weight of Light."

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT DELBECQ'S "ANAMORPHOSES")

WHITEHEAD: The specific drawing on the cover of Benoit Delbecq's album resembles one of Alexander Calder's mobiles - objects hanging in space whose panels may pass in front of each other in ways that can seem both random and right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT DELBECQ'S "ANAMORPHOSES")

WHITEHEAD: Those last three excerpts are from Benoit Delbecq's piece "Anamorphoses," a word meaning slow evolutionary changes of form. For that piece, he wedges between the strings found pieces of wood he's collected around the world, drawn from various kinds of trees and shrubs because hard and soft woods affect the sound differently. Wood is Delbecq's preferred material for preparing pianos, merging the organic and mechanical.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT DELBECQ'S "THE LOOP OF CHICAGO")

WHITEHEAD: In a way, Delbecq Africanizes the piano, mixing the complex buzzing and rattling timbres West African musicians favor with euro classical music's more pure instrumental tones. Delbecq has a deft way of starting in one sound world and transitioning to the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT DELBECQ'S "HAVN EN HAVRE")

WHITEHEAD: Sometimes Benoit Delbecq uses crossed hands at the keyboard, his right hand dipping below a patch of prepared notes under his left. On a polyrhythmic solo whose French title translates as "The Path On The Crest," each hand plays a divided role. Thumbs close together play prepared notes while his other fingers fan out on the keys to the left and right. It can make him sound like he has three hands at least.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT DELBECQ'S "CHEMIN SUR LE CREST")

WHITEHEAD: Filmmaker Igor Juget documented the recording of Benoit Delbecq's "The Weight Of Light" for a film of the same name. Excerpts posted on Vimeo and YouTube let you see the process unfold. On the video of "Anamorphoses," asparagus-sized twigs of pine poke up from between the strings as if a tree were sprouting from inside the piano - visual poetry to reinforce the music's mysterioso quality.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT DELBECQ'S "PAIR ET IMPAIR")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "The Weight Of Light" by pianist Benoit Delbecq.

On tomorrow's show, we speak with Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, the director and co-director of the film "Soul," which is nominated for an Oscar for best animated film. They also co-wrote the film. Powers also has an Oscar nomination for his screenplay "One Night In Miami," which he adapted from his play of the same name. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "COLLARD GREENS AND CORNBREAD STRUT")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "COLLARD GREENS AND CORNBREAD STRUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.