Ludovico Einaudi is in lockdown. With time to think – to take a walk in the fresh Mediterranean breeze – perhaps the Italian pianist could have presented us with some new ideas? Perhaps the self-described ‘post-classicist’ could have taken a leap of faith into the musical unknown, experimented for the sake of it, and created with something, well, a bit better than usual? Alas, 12 Songs from Home offers nothing new in any sense of the word, save for a more dampened sound quality, probably caused by a digital switch made in order to produce a ‘living room’ acoustic.
Making use of over an hour of endless four-chord cycles, and a clever compositional device known to researchers in the depths of the Music Faculty as ‘repetition’, Einaudi has managed to create his least innovative album yet. Particularly boring – sorry, BORING – were ‘A Sense of Symmetry’, ‘Oltremare’, ‘Berlin Song’, ‘Tu Sei’, etc., et al. No doubt, this all comes as good news for his legions of easily pleased fans, connoisseurs of ‘ultimate soothing classical piano’ YouTube compilations, and his accountants. ‘Why change a well-established formula,’ they ask, ‘when it works?’. The historian and musicologist Carl Dahlhaus would answer: ’for the sake of musical progress’ – and, in other circumstances, so might I.
Right now, however, the saving grace of this retrospective, domiciled dodecagon of piano hits is that it helps to soothe the pain of a lack of live music and fuel the healthy, small dose of nostalgia that keeps our hopes high. There is no time like the present for the argument that consistency can be comforting.
It is a similar lust for the past which oozes out of the latest release by the experimentalist-extraordinaire Meredith Monk, this time energised by her own compositional idiosyncrasies. Full of the characteristically vivid vocals, silly synths, and nutty narration which marks the American composer out as so absurdly wonderful, Memory Game strikes a perfect balance between the intense introspection popularised by Einaudi and the sheer joy of innovation. With input from instrumentalists Bang on a Can All-Stars and fellow New York electro-acoustic deities David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, this survey of Monk’s life is both playful and politically provocative.
The stand-out track has to be ‘The Games: Memory Game’, featuring calls of ‘champagne’, ‘football’, and ‘chairs’ (three things I am sure many of us have been missing of late) layered above the dulcet tones of neo-psychedelic electro-harp and clarinet, along with occasional dog-like yapping. In contrast, the following track ‘Downfall’ can only be described as a possible theme-tune for a darker, German-language version of the somewhat obscure 2018 adventure film, Christopher Robin. Lighter relief, however, can be found in the smooth grooves of ‘Turtle Dreams Cabaret: Tokyo Cha Cha’ and ‘Acts from Under and Above: Double Fiesta’ (presuming the latter’s title hides no dark secrets).
As an album, Memory Game works very well, irrespective of prior musical tastes. It must be acknowledged, however, that Monk’s nostalgia operates on much deeper levels than Einaudi’s, and that this is what lends it its impact. Memory Game acts not only as a journey of reminiscence through the life of one of the past 50 years’ most inventive and admirable artists, but also serves as a reminder of life’s simple pleasures – something I’m sure we can all appreciate in the current circumstances. Whether you long for football and chairs, get a kick out of amplified xylophones, whether you usually listen to the Vengaboys or Vivaldi, this album is a must.
The particularly successful brand of nostalgia induced by Memory Game can be equated to dusting off an old VHS player and revisiting pleasant home-movies from a happy childhood. The experience of listening to 12 Songs From Home, however, is more akin to eating a packet of cheese and onion crisps and remembering with masochistic fondness how your student flat used to smell of cheese and onion. It seems, then, that modern classical music has used this hiatus in live collaborative opportunities to wind back the memory-cogs to a better time. Whilst Einaudi decides to regress to simple crowd-pleasers, however, Monk continues a journey of progression and musical development on an album that would make Dahlhaus smile.