Antiguo Autómata Mexicano - 20+ Piano Improvisations Music Album Reviews

Antiguo Autómata Mexicano - 20+ Piano Improvisations Music Album Reviews
The Monterrey-based experimental musician abandons the outward trappings of electronic music on his latest album, a hushed collection of cryptic etudes that flicker in the margin between the played and the programmed.

The pianola—better known as the player piano, an instrument that appears to play itself, as though a ghost were seated at the keyboard—has been obsolete for a century, yet its DNA lives on in the form of the piano roll. Originally, the piano roll was a scroll of paper perforated with tiny holes that dictated the pitch, tempo, and dynamics to be reproduced by a player piano. Today, the piano roll is a common term for the graphical interface used to program MIDI notes on a computer screen. These two technologies, one archaic and the other contemporary, collapse together on 20+ Piano Improvisations, a collection of cryptic etudes that flicker in the margin between the played and the programmed.
The Monterrey-based musician Ángel Sánchez Borges, aka Antiguo Autómata Mexicano, has been active in the Mexican experimental-music scene since 1985. On previous releases like 2005’s Microhate and 2007’s Kraut Slut, Borges explored the spring-loaded rhythms and brushed-metal textures of millennial glitch techno. With 20+ Piano Improvisations, he abandons the outward trappings of electronic music, turning his attention to the piano—and, in the process, emphasizing the automaton in his alias. Dating back millennia, automata are machines programmed to perform basic tasks or execute certain movements, often in ways that appear deceptively lifelike. The player piano was an automaton common to many middle-class living rooms in the early 20th century; an early (albeit expensive) model of music player that brought virtuoso performance techniques to the mass market.

An album of electronic commands masquerading as acoustic music and vice versa, 20+ Piano Improvisations is part of a tradition stretching from Conlon Nancarrow’s pianola studies to Aphex Twin’s Disklavier experiments. But in Borges’ blend of hands-on performance and MIDI programming, there is little evidence of the ghost in the machine. Unlike Nancarrow’s formidably difficult pieces, with their runaway-train rhythms and impenetrable blocks of notes—antecedents to the punishing cascades of black MIDI—Borges’ two- and three-minute preludes are slim, almost wistful things. Tentative right-hand melodies tease out their counterparts on the left, nudging repeated figures both forward and outward, like rainwater finding its path. The pacing is a kind of mechanistic rubato, as though a robot were feeling out its limbs. The mood is tentative, quiet, inquisitive—unafraid to be sentimental, yet never maudlin. It’s even playful, at times, albeit in a hushed, hangdog way.

Borges never goes out of the way to hide the irreality of his pieces; the very first song sounds like something that could be plausibly executed by 10 fingers in real time, yet it is trailed by a faint, unobtrusive shadow of synthesizer, almost as though the computer were humming along—like Keith Jarrett, lost in his reverie. In the closing piece, a long reverb tail detunes as it curls, lending the piano an eerie, waterlogged air.

The album’s early pieces tend to proceed naturalistically, as cautiously graceful counterpoints map out the melodic and harmonic terrain with the precision of county surveyors. Even at its most unadorned, his instrument sounds unusually rich and embodied, with the shuffling of felted hammers lending a percussive feel to his denser passages. A piece might start out simply but gradually accrue extra voices—in “Piano Improvisation No. 5,” faint echoes, almost like traces of dub delay, creep into the frame; in “Piano Improvisation No. 14,” left- and right-hand parts seem to branch into several hands’ worth of counterpoints as the music speeds and slows. Often, by the end, the melodic line of any given piece has been fogged with stray accidentals and extra layers, like an Etch A Sketch that hasn’t been thoroughly erased. And occasionally Borges abandons the solo-piano conceit altogether; with its dissonant sheets of string synth, “Piano Improvisation No. 16” sounds like his answer to Paul Hindemith’s sonatas for piano and violin.

But the pleasure of this wonderfully moving album does not lie in the search for the wizard behind the curtain. How the music was created is ultimately unimportant; what matters is the depth of feeling he achieves. Borges’ concerns are musical, not technological: Channeling the bristly high Modernism of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” and John Cage’s “In a Landscape” alongside the warm-blooded neo-Romanticism of Harold Budd’s La Bella Vista and Perhaps, Borges lays out 20 gentle musical riddles that feel at once nostalgic, curious, and whimsical—like well-worn bar puzzles, delightful to the touch.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Antiguo Autómata Mexicano - 20+ Piano Improvisations Music Album Reviews Antiguo Autómata Mexicano - 20+ Piano Improvisations Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on July 22, 2021 Rating: 5


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