Playlist | Minimalism

Pared-down sound

In music, forgoing excess often stands for minimalist innovation. Rarely has less been so much more than in the nine piano pieces that the musician Malakoff Kowalski handpicked for this playlist

Mr. Kowalski is sitting in an armchair, he is wearing a white shirt with black trousers and a boatman's cap.

Musician and composer Malakoff Kowalski lives in Berlin

“Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Var. 25 a 2 Clav.” by Johann Sebastian Bach, played by Igor Levit.

A few days ago, a friend from Vienna wrote to me, “What do you do when you can't stand yourself?” I sent her this piece. When I listen to this music, everything becomes one. It all dissolves and finds ist own equilibrium. It’s music like a clear starry sky. Composed with the greatest economy, Bach manages to put all the contradictions we live in, the cruelty and happiness of this world, everything that seems to be too much or too little, into proportion. With this music, I can even stand myself.

“Lullaby op. 16, No. 1” by Peter Tchaikovsky, arranged for piano by Sergei Rachmaninoff, played by Zlata Chochieva.

Lullabies thrive on soothing a child to sleep with a simple, touching melody. Much like a folk tune, a lullaby can rarely be traced back to one composer. It survives because of its universal simplicity, and even the most unmusical people can whistle or sing it. However, each person performs it in his or her own unique way - because neither an original form nor a musical score has been traced. What happens when a genius like Tchaikovsky ventures to write a lullaby for piano and voice and then another genius like Rachmaninoff rearranges it for solo piano? What a playful, opulent, dark and in no way simple-piece can emerge! It shows just how close childhood and adulthood are to each other at the end of the day.

“Of Strange Lands and People” by Johanna Summer, freely adapted from Robert Schumann

“Of Strange Lands and People” is, along with “Träumerei”, one of the best-known pieces from Robert Schumann's famous piano series, “Kinderszenen”. A theme as simple as the repeating melody of a children's music box. Based on this über-hit from 1838, jazz pianist Johanna Summer improvises completely freely today in the 21st century, and the most exciting, beautiful things come out of it - as is only possible in jazz.

“Summer of '42” by Michel Legrand, performed by Chilly Gonzales.

The musical theme of Robert Mulligan's 1971 film “Summer of '42” is one of composer Michel Legrand's greatest masterpieces. I love him for his film scores more than almost anyone else. A lot of what I do in my own film scores and on my solo albums relates to with him. The way the pianist Chilly Gonzales deconstructs this epic, orchestral large-scale music down to its bare skeleton and then transfers it into his own unmistakable style with a new arrangement would have struck Michel Legrand right in his heart.

“Piano Aphorisms” by Malakoff Kowalski.

It is always useful to consider who it is that is commenting on this and that. My present understanding of renunciation in music is summed up quite well in the first movement of my “Piano Aphorisms”: a sonata in four movements - a large-scale form in contrast to the laconic miniatures of my last years. Eruptive and dissonant, the music builds up rhapsodically over 34 minutes. The first movement, however - unlike the second, third and fourth - is very restrained, and in it the pauses between the struck keys, the unadorned single notes, the empty spaces and the fading out are the actual space that is played in.

“The Old Chapel by Moonlight, Op. 106” by Amy Beach, played by Kirsten Johnson.

This is a composition that is like a text with practically no verbs. It is a sequence of almost only chords. Single notes like sighs serve as connecting links. Hardly a melodic line emerges in the strict sense of the term and yet it offers captivating clarity through its recognisable motifs. It dates from  1924, a time when a great American composer like Amy Beach was only allowed to publish under the pseudonym “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach”: “H. H. A.” were the initials of her husband Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach.

“All Numbers End” by Nils Frahm

In 2021, Nils Frahm released an album of unreleased piano pieces from previous years. “All Numbers End” is the shortest of them all, and it is a mystery to me how anyone can manage to pour so much beauty, so much essence, so much meaning and so much music into a tiny character piece. There is no repetition; with almost every note, every turn, a new thought follows. Each moment speaks things for which there are no words. One minute and 35 seconds of cosmic happiness.

“For Alina” by Arvo Pärt, played by Alexander Malter.

If we really take minimal, modern composing on the piano seriously, then this is really only possible with Arvo Pärt and his groundbreaking piece “For Alina” from 1976. After eight years of artistic crisis, he finds a new compositional technique, which he calls “Tintinnabuli”, literally translated: “little bells”. The few notes that there are to play and hear at all are organised in careful order. There is hardly any tempo. On the face of it, it is possible to understand this music as meditative, as calming, but that’s a deception. The melody, the theme, the motifs, the modules continually play with the expectation of a harmonic resolution, which is repeatedly denied to us. Towards the end of all the characters, the redemptive final note, the resolving harmony  never appears, even though it feels within reach. Crazy stuff, fantastically good. You can lose your mind over it and still agree with yourself and these circling notes. The recording from 1995 is authorised by Pärt and was released on ECM in 1999. Caution: when this track plays, you often get the impression that someone has accidentally pressed “pause”.

“October. Autumn Song” by Peter Tchaikovsky, played by Khatia Buniatishvili.

If you believe in God, then this music comes directly from him. If you are an atheist, agnostic or whatever, you should put your doubts aside for a moment and imagine for about five minutes that God might just exist after all and that divine music would have to sound something like "October" from Tchaikovsky's “Seasons” cycle. There is so much that does not happen here. The renunciation of a “more” is palpable in every bar, there is not a note that could be deleted without everything collapsing in on itself. On YouTube there is a black-and-white television recording by Lev Oborin from 1971 that strikes me as even more beautiful than the contemporary recording by Khatia Buniatishvili, but unfortunately - as far as I know - this television performance was never released as a sound recording. As I jot down these thoughts, I hear the end of “October”, and it comes back to me that I quoted this ending in the piece “Noma” on my penultimate album “Onomatopoetika”. Completely forgotten. So time passes, and everything comes full circle again ...