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Raphael Loher, "Keemuun"

KeemuunThis may be Swiss pianist/composer Raphael Loher's first solo album, but he has crossed my path before with his Baumschule trio (featuring Julian Sartorius and Manuel Troller). I am much less familiar with Loher's other trio (KALI), but the importance is that he has spent time improvising with inspiring musicians and has accumulated some very intriguing compositional ideas along the way. Interestingly, Keemuun is itself a bit of an improvisatory collaboration with inspiring (if unwitting) musicians, as Loher often played along with albums by other artists while experimenting with his rapid-fire piano patterns (Beatrice Dillon's rhythmically adventurous Workaround was a particularly central touchstone). In fact, just about everything about this album's evolution feels like fertile grist for a "galaxy brain" meme: a prepared piano album…limited to only ten notes spanning two octaves…improvised against cutting edge techno rhythms…but with all of those foundational rhythms totally excised from the final recording. Needless to say, all of those factors make for a very cool album concept in theory, but I am pleased to report that Loher's brilliant execution has made this a killer album in reality as well.

three:four records

The album consists of four numbered pieces, the first of which is considerably more subdued and minimal than the others (and shorter too). To my ears, the opener lies somewhere between bleary Morton Feldman-style dissonance and a dying, slightly out-of-tune music box performing its own elegy. It makes a perfectly fine (if understated) introduction, but I doubt I would be writing about Keemuun if it did not catch fire with the second piece and sustain that white-hot level of inspiration for the remainder of the album.

That second piece opens with a rapid arpeggio pattern that quickly begins unraveling into tendrils of new melody. It packs quite a mesmerizing effect, as it feels breathless, delirious, unpredictable, and endlessly spiraling. Then, around the five-minute mark, Loher downshifts his circular patterns into a plinking simmer that calls to mind a blurred and hallucinatory twist on gamelan. Notably, two of Loher's central themes for the album were "continuous movement of the left and right hands' and "a specific technique of piano preparation," so "II" marks the first explosive realization of that vision.

The third piece is yet another stunner in a similar vein, though its spiraling arpeggios have more of a "pulsing wave" dynamic. Loher proves to be something of a genius in the realm of dynamics in general, as his subtle changes in attack and emphasis give the piece the organically kinetic feel of shifting sand dunes. Moreover, Loher's piano preparation technique works some magic of its own, as his notes have a metallic physicality and leave a smeared and lingering haze of strange harmonies in their wake. The album winds to a close with another "Feldman meets broken music box"-style piece, but it has a much darker and more sinister tone this time around. Gradually the sense of menace subsides to reveal a deep sadness, but that sadness builds to a rhythmically sophisticated crescendo of broken-sounding interwoven melodies.

In its final moments, the piece (and the album) dissolve into a simple melancholy melody that leaves a ghostly afterimage hanging in the long spaces between the notes. It makes for a lovely and quiet comedown from the technical tour de force at the heart of the album. Obviously, one more tour de force would have been just fine by me, but this is a damn-near perfect album in all respects. Notably, the conception of this album coincided with an epiphany in which Loher became less interested in "confronting" audiences with his art and more interested in creating something "beautiful but strange." I honestly do not know how Loher could have possibly done a better job at realizing that objective, as Keemuun is quite a brilliant and moving statement.

Listen here.