Contemporary piano music, particularly that which sits somewhere on the spectrum between ambient and neoclassical, tends to derive much of its appeal from the charged poles of liminality and melancholy. The eerie beauty of Philip Glass and the sad prettiness of Erik Satie are common touchstones. Conrad Clipper adds a third ingredient to the mix: anonymity. Beyond the fact that Clipper is apparently a man based Germany, we don’t really know anything about him. This unknowable quality is honed on Heron’s Book of Dreams, his second album, and seems designed to augment both the liminal and melancholic aspects of his sound.
To explain further: the album was written, according to a very precise backstory, during Clipper’s five-day stay in Arcosanti (an experimental settlement in the Arizona desert), at the edge of a very exclusive music festival to which he wasn’t invited. The resulting music is clearly shaped by the strange, slightly sad, utopian dream of the town, which looks like something Giorgio de Chirico might have painted if he had been a futurologist with an eye on ecology. The resulting tracks were taken back to be worked on in Berlin, before being mixed and mastered by John Dieterich of Deerhoof fame.
Clipper’s manipulation of the piano is remarkable, and his skill is evident from the start. He uses the ‘prepared piano’ technique made famous by John Cage (essentially changing the nature of the instrument’s sound by applying physical constraints or alterations to its internal mechanisms) and is also adept at capturing extra-musical sounds: human contact with studio and instrument, the hiss and buzz of equipment, sometimes the sounds of the outside world. The opening track – the short prelude Arcosanti – begins with the nostalgic sound of technological decay before a sleepy, unadorned melody kicks in (though to say anything ‘kicks in’ here is misleading – everything has the pale, malleable softness of a lucid dream).
This album is slightly more there than the 2016 debut Cycle of Liminal Rites. Where the soft, drawn-out ambience of that record drew you slowly into its shimmering world, Heron’s Book of Dreams is more like a series of linked but very different vignettes. Or perhaps neighbouring villages on a plateau, each one proudly independent within the confines of its overarching geography. It is a more episodic affair, if only marginally, but paradoxically it also manages to be more coherent. That its emotional aspects are almost tangible compared to the abstract strokes of its predecessor only serves to make it more mysterious.
The textural qualities of Clipper’s music become increasingly apparent as the album progresses. The first three tracks are there and gone, pleasant zephyrs, full of warmth and invitation. ‘The Coven’, the first longer piece, combines the drones and fragmentary noises into a beautiful whole, shifting like a sand dune. Triple Dance is a journey from tremulous ripples of sound, via a glassy shimmer to a precise, definitive and sad piano melody.
‘No Peaches for the Foolish’ begins with a percussive clangour that seems quasi-religious and soon wades into a world of strange birdsong and piano lines that have a discomfiting, quiet euphoria about them. The title track’s oh-so-simple melody seems to be the structure on which the tape hiss and string-saturated drone rests, rather than the other way round: the track’s tension comes from the way the drone supersedes the bucolic drip-drip of the keys. The effect is heightened by its continuation into the final track, ‘Forces Out of Your Control’, in which the piano drops out altogether, leaving the sonic underbelly exposed to the final lulling motion of the synths. It all adds up to a beautiful and continuous whole, an album that plays out like a suite of Italo Calvino stories or a Miyazaki film in which the main characters are imaginary buildings and the elements that shape them. A wonderful, reflective and at times disconcerting creation.
Heron’s Book of Dreams is out 30th April on Luau