Sept duos pour guitar acoustique et piano préparé is the second duo recording from Stephen O’Malley and Anthony Pateras. Their first together, Rêve Noir (2018), took an electro-acoustic scalpel to a 2011 duo concert for electric guitar and piano, using Revox and digital treatments to twist and smear gig documentation into ghostly echoes and fractured drones. Here, in contrast, the music is entirely acoustic and presented as it was performed, without overdubs. Both players’ choices of instruments are notable: this is O’Malley’s most extensive recording on steel string acoustic guitar (playing an instrument whose previous owners include Marissa Nadler and Glenn Jones) and Pateras return to the prepared piano, which he has rarely employed in recent years, after spending much of the first decade of the 21st century exploring its possibilities.
Recorded during O’Malley’s residency at La Becque on Lake Geneva in the summer of 2021, from the first moments of the opening ‘déjà revé’ the music immediately establishes the distinctive landscape of chiming tones and hovering clouds of resonance explored throughout its one-hour running time. Pateras’ preparations create tolling bell-like tones alive with complex overtones, alongside which O’Malley’s open strings and natural harmonics add a sparkling clarity. While Pateras’ music often uses a densely chromatic harmonic language, these duos are remarkable for their modal simplicity. However, the interaction between the pure intervals of O’Malley’s just-intoned strings and the unstable harmonies created by the piano preparations suspends the music in an oneiric state of hazy ambiguity. Without obvious reference to tempo or meter, the music floats in what the composer Ernstalbrecht Stiebler has called a ‘bottomless sound space’, the temporal placement of events determined by bodily rhythms and the performers’ own listening to (and enjoyment of) the sounds being made.
Heard one way, this music can seem striking in its consistency, almost environmental. Attending more carefully, the listener hears the pitch sets and tunings changing throughout the album’s length. Each piece has its own character, subtly distinguished from the others through mood, pacing, and timbre. On ‘déjà voulu’, for instance, O’Malley makes prominent use of slide, the woozy, bending pitches weaving through a series of lush arpeggiated chords from the piano. ‘Déjà senti’, on the other hand, is particularly spare, the gestures spaced out to the extent that they often float in isolation against the background of fading resonance. Much of ‘déjà su’ is built around a slowly pulsing single prepared piano tone, creating an almost ominous tension, whereas the sparkling guitar harmonics and arpeggios of the closing ‘déjà raconté’ have a gently triumphal air. While the music’s calm, rippling surface is immediately entrancing, these seven duos – in the tradition of the best improvised music – also reward close listening, which reveals sonic details and focuses the listener’s attention on how the music unfolds spontaneously from decision to decision, from gesture to gesture.
Recorded during a period when O’Malley and Pateras were grieving the loss of recently departed friends and collaborators, these seven duos possess a reflective, at times almost mournful quality. More importantly, though, they are imbued with other qualities that can arise from personal loss: a clarity that allows one to clear away the inessential, to begin again, to renew one’s faith in friendship and music.