Erik Griswold’s prepared piano is as personal an instrument as one could ever hope to imagine. Prepared by the artist’s own hands and made to adapt to the artists most intimate musical instincts, the prepared piano is where he will be most personally expressive. “(S)tifled by the negativity of the Australian political discourse, the narcissistic excess of social media, and facing a long summer of migraine-inducing heat” (where he lives in Australia), it’s exactly this instrument the American artist turned to for his latest work, Pain Avoidance Machine. “These pieces are meditations,“ says Griswold of the music, ”each with its own mood, but constructed in a similar way.” The title has quite literal connotations of the ideas behind the work, with the piano adopting the role of the machine, with an execution that’s more hopeful consolation than painful remission.
The composer is said to have “gone back to basics” after composing for a myriad of instruments and it comes across in the way there is little superfluous gesturing from the artist. Spartan sonic landscapes develop from the minimalist arrangements as the dull plucking of immovable strings form a derelict contrast to the rich fullness of the strings allowed to resonate freely. The way Griswold has plotted his preparation in this regard is remarkably ingenious and far more approachable than Cage, who is probably the master of the prepared piano. Griswold allows for some play between the abstract harshness of the inhibited vibration and the tone that we’ve come to expect from a piano. Many of the objects restricting the vibration add their own resonances and blend effortlessly with the other elements, which often contribute their own source of dissatisfaction, rumbling in the lower registers. The abstract efforts of the preparations should feel awkward in the minimalist keymanship from Griswold’s left hand, but it doesn’t and it if there is any discontent to be felt in the music it definitely does not come across in the composition of the pieces.
This effect is achieved through the tonal obscurities of the prepared elements of the piano in Pain Avoidance Machine. It’s like the vibrations set forth by the pianist in the style of Phillip Glass or Terry Riley’s most evocative voices meet the stubborn immovable obstructions and coax them into subtle movements of their own accord which effectively resonates deep within the listener. It’s not that is particularly effective in any one miniature over the other, and they are definitely more of a presence in their vast numbers. There’s nothing incredibly notable that will stick in your mind in terms of harmony or melody, but what sticks with you is a feeling, a feeling that is carried through from miniature to miniature without ever resolving. There’s no album narrative to latch onto, nor is there a particular story we can discern from individual pieces. They just seem to exist in the greater scheme of the pain avoidance machine, where they form a very visceral sonic landscape. It might be the artist’s meditations, but something more is carried through with them. In the various moods they try to convey, there’s something of a central expression in them, and it’s almost like the artist is not only trying to console his own pain, but also effectively looking for a way to change the world through these short piano pieces.