Pianoworks by Eluvium

Release date: May 31, 2019
Label: Temporary Residence Ltd.

Working under the Eluvium moniker for at least the last 16 years, Matthew Cooper has fashioned a reputation for what’s been frequently described as “maximalist” ambient, an elegant kind of low-fi, slow-motion electronica that tempts one to employ the word “shimmer.”

But never entirely lost in all that lushness was Eluvium’s second album, An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death, a pure piano landscape echoing childhood music practice. Its simple, neoclassical lines, more heartfelt than technically masterful, were emotionally evocative in the way that slanting rays of sunlight on a wood floor are, or old photographs of people we never knew.

Pianoworks is Eluvium’s first foray into a solo piano album since his heralded sophomore effort. The album was recorded gradually over a period of ten years, with some pieces re-recorded multiple times. The timescape is audible in the varying timbres of sound, from the old-piano textures of ‘Recital’ to the brighter tones of ‘Transfiguration One’ to the slightly-muted ones of ‘Transfiguration Two.’ Cooper asks us to hear that timescape metaphorically as well: ‘Recital,’ the opening track, is meant to evoke childhood piano lessons; the final track, ‘Empathy for a Silhouette,’ was inspired “by the struggle to hold onto innocence and imagination as adulthood settles in.”

Sheet music is available for Pianoworks, and Cooper hopes to encourage children and novice pianists to play these pieces. Most of these tracks, in fact, read like études, exercises in which simple intervals and arpeggios are repeated over and over until they are mastered. The music on An Accidental Memory… had a similar metronomic regularity, but it was a little rougher, and, perhaps, therein lay its charm. Generally lacking in syncopation and executed neatly and without error, Pianoworks at its best — as on ‘Empathy for a Silhouette’ — evokes Bach or Satie. At its more tedious, however, it defies deep emotional engagement. ‘Recital’ bangs tiringly at a repeated motif, the playing style overly reminiscent of the child’s it is meant to reference. A number of the middle tracks cruise by pleasantly but forgettably. And some of the pieces touch on other works — ‘Masquerade’ is reminiscent of Yann Tiersen’s compositions for the movie Amélie; ‘Underwater Dream’ shares a scrap of melody with the piano break in Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla’ — in ways that detract rather than enhance.

This is not to say that Pianoworks cannot achieve loveliness. In ‘Transfiguration One,’ where arpeggios repeat and repeat, the music appears in the occasional hesitations; as the piece progresses, one starts to hear subtleties that were not initially evident. The exquisite ‘Underwater Dream’ is a gliding, lyric piece — it does, indeed, feel like swimming underwater. And ‘Empathy for a Silhouette,’ perhaps the strongest piece on the album, hearkens back to the impact of An Accidental Memory...

Pianoworks’ conceit is that of a child growing to adulthood, grappling with the loss of all that childhood signified. The irony is that in growing up, Eluvium may have lost hold of some of the emotional resonance that made An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death so magical — that Pianoworks is a pretty, respectful, listenable but ultimately slightly hollow echo of what childhood was.

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