It’s utterly remarkable that Cooper could create a 90-minute collection of solo piano compositions feel defiant in its lack of pretentiousness.
In the wake of his beautiful ambient debut Lambent Memory, Matthew Cooper – otherwise known as Eluvium – went in a completely different direction. He released An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death, which stripped back all of the deliberate soundscapes of Lambent until nothing remained but Cooper and a piano – no words, no tricks, just 26 minutes of shockingly simple piano compositions. Fifteen years later, he returns to the well with the stately Pianoworks, his first collection of solo piano compositions since An Accidental Memory.
The difference in titles says a lot about where Cooper is with his music now. While An Accidental Memory’s title was entirely in line with titles like Talk Amongst the Trees and Static Nocturne, Pianoworks is the kind of no-nonsense declaration of contents that sounds like it should have been made by Philip Glass or Claude Debussy. Really, the act of making a record entirely of unadorned piano compositions at all feels like something that should drip with pretension. Yet despite the stuffiness of the title, Pianoworks is defined by its simplicity, which was the engine that drove the creation of the album; in the press release, it states that Cooper wanted this music to be “simple enough to inspire children and novices to play, and the concept simple enough to resonate regardless of age or experience.” Eluvium’s Bandcamp even sells easy-to-read books of sheet music for all of his solo piano compositions.
These songs are unhurried and unflashy, sounding like the kinds of compositions an all-too-cool 10-year-old might learn from a piano teacher; that the first song’s title is simply “Recital” feels very fitting. Every note in every song feels very deliberate, with almost nothing in the way of showboating (though some moments seem designed to make you feel like a wizard when you play them, like the tumbling notes of “Vacuous Plenum”). Cooper wrote Pianoworks in an attempt to capture the wide-eyed wonder of childhood, and looking at these songs through that lens strips away the desire to dissect the music in terms of technique and replaces it with a desire to talk about how each song feels: “Masquerade” feels like walking home from school on a clear autumn afternoon. “Nepthene” feels like a dramatic day spent playing in the rain, and “Myriad Days” feels like the embrace of your mother after you’ve come back inside. You may see different visions, but whatever it is, it’s remarkable that these songs brought them all into your head so clearly.
The album’s second disc contains re-recorded versions of the songs of An Accidental Memory (save for “An Accidental Memory”), which presents a remarkable progress report for Cooper’s progression as a pianist – and recording artist, for that matter – over the course of 15 years. Each song simply sounds strikingly better, ditching the quaint production of yore and replacing it with crystalline sound quality. Each song has also been honed and tightened, their minor fluff shaved off, making the act of listening to each version back-to-back an interesting game of “Spot the Difference,” which is harder to pick up on than you’d think, with the exception of “An Accidental Memory in Case of Death,” which Cooper has shaved a minute and a half off of while losing none of the song’s gentle beauty.
The album’s one downfall – or perhaps it’s a feature, rather than a bug – is that these compositions do little to stick with you after you’ve put the record aside. This isn’t shocking (it’s entirely made of simplistic piano songs), but you get the sense that Pianoworks was intended to exist not as an album, but as both an indirect delivery service for beauty (one that might exist in the background of a quiet dinner party, or perhaps while you’re reading), as well as serving as a springboard, meant to subtly push the listener into wanting to track down a piano teacher who will teach adults, or failing that, find their children their own teacher. If even one person actually follows through with that desire, the album will be a resounding success.