“Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons,” says Nils Frahm about today's special celebration. “But mostly it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most importantly, the listener.”
Given the instrument’s ubiquity in modern and classical music, it’s a wonder the Berlin-based pianist and composer was the first to set aside a day – the 88th of each year – to celebrate the piano when he did so only a few years ago. We're happy to join the piano party, so we’ve decided to put together some of our favourite pieces of piano music for testing your system. Or hey, just listening.
Says by Nils Frahm
It makes sense to begin with the musician responsible for this day in the first place. Nils Frahm’s soundscapes, using an often-unconventional fusion of modern classical and electronic music, are a litmus test for frequency range, space and timing, but most pertinently for how a system knits together electronic and acoustic instruments.
Son Of Parasol by Lubomyr Melnyk
A label-mate of Frahm’s on Erased Tapes, Lubomyr Melnyk is a pioneer of what he terms continuous piano music, a near-transcendental style where both hands are in constant motion and silence is welcomed only between each piece. Strong organisation is key to picking out overlapping patterns, as is a firm grip on timing and dynamics.
1/1 by Brian Eno
The opening track from one of, if not the finest ambient record of all time – Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports – 1/1 is dependent on the rich textures of its instruments and subtle dynamics within its sparse arrangement to lift the recurring piano line from the tarmac and high toward the clouds.
Music For Gymnastics by Jordan De La Sierra
Jordan De La Sierra, a student of both Terry Riley and Pandit Pran Nath, recorded his 1977 work Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose – composed entirely from a seven-note scale in fundamental pitch – in a small basement studio in Berkley before playing the tapes at the walls of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and capturing the resulting echoes and reverberation. Mixing the two recordings together, the result is an ethereal sonic mist, with notes played very deliberately then manipulated by space, where detail, timing and dynamics are put firmly to the test.
Looped by Kiasmos
Another label-mate and collaborator of Frahm’s, Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds’s ambient, minimalist piano tracks are undeniably enchanting – his score for Broadchurch even earned him a BAFTA – and we'll feature one later in this list. But it's his work with Faroese electronic artist Janus Rasmussen as experimental techno outfit Kiasmos we're focusing on first. With each instrument recorded acoustically before being treated or looped, there is as much textural detail for your system to dig out as there are pulsing rhythms for it to keep in time.
Nuclear War by Sun Ra
One of more than 1000 recordings released by the indomitable Sun Ra, Nuclear War is a wry meditation on the effects of its title matter set to a playful, jazzy relationship between piano and drum kit. Expect a disjointed performance from poorly-timing hi-fi systems.
Vessel by Jon Hopkins
From Jon Hopkins’s 2009 album Insides, Vessel juxtaposes its lilting main piano line with fairly industrial manufactured beats and synthesizer buzzes, well textured and digging deep into low frequencies to test mid/bass drivers for restraint and tonality. See also Four Tet’s equally marvellous reimagining.
Gnossienne: No. 1 by Erik Satie
One of the most famous works by likely the foremost architect of minimalism, Gnossienne: No. 1’s sombre march is reliant upon strong expression as much as detail, timing or balance to display its near-surrealistic sense of movement. Each of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes should feel decidedly lavish, in spite of their bare instrumentation.
Let's Fall In Love Tonight by Lewis
Few things are so pleasant on the ears as a rich and full-bodied midrange. This, from Lewis’s once lost debut record, revels in such atmospheres. The piano and accompanying pad synths are awash with loving warmth, while Lewis’s croon coats the arrangement like soft caramel.
ELEMENT. by Kendrick Lamar
While DAMN. might not be so sprawling an example of genre experimentation as Kendrick Lamar’s preceding record, 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, the Californian rapper is never pedestrian with his instrumentation. The ominous repetition of the sampled piano line in ELEMENT. is only truly revealed by its subtle impetus and a rhythmically aware hi-fi setup.
U by DJ Seinfeld
Despite being heavily treated with digital effects by DJ Seinfeld, the piano in U is proof if needed of the instrument’s being immediately distinguishable despite what a producer may do to it. The tonality and attack are unmistakeable, as is the need for a well-organised and well-balanced system to make most of this lo-fi house gem.
Sit Down, Stand Up (Snakes & Ladders) by Radiohead
This may not be the first Radiohead track that comes to mind when you think of piano test tracks, but it can be the ruin of a system without an impeccable sense of timing or organisation. Let your kit dig the detail out of that treated piano before the jungle-style polyrhythm is unleashed after around three minutes, hopefully not just sounding like a mess, then test the agility of the low end with Colin Greenwood’s sprinting bass guitar line.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Sergei Rachmaninov
You’ll likely have seen these next two coming. The juxtaposition of gushing romanticism and imposing march-like phrases in Sergei Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 in C Minor are enough to get any system on its toes. While its beauty will typically shine through regardless, only a system with impeccable sense of dynamics and organisation will really do it justice.
Clair de lune by Claude Debussy
Few pieces have been interpreted by so many pianists as this, Debussy's most famous work, but Alexandre Tharaud's take – released as a video and digital single as part of last year's centenary celebrations – might be the first to incorporate acrobatics. "Artists exploring ideas together become like childhood friends," says Yoann Bourgeois, choreographer and star of the video. There is a dancing, lilting movement in Tharaud's performance, undoubtedly affected by this duet of art forms.
Lady Grinning Soul by David Bowie
Mike Garson’s performance on this, the final track on David Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane, is nothing short of masterful. The piano’s interaction with other instruments in the arrangement are a test of detail and organisation, as much as Bowie’s own expansive vocal is for dynamic range.
All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem
It’s two chords, all the way through – your system can handle that, can’t it? This LCD Soundsystem gem is another from the school whereby if you’re still sitting in your seat by the song’s conclusion, you need to begin asking questions about timing, organisation and dynamics.
Satellite Of Love by Lou Reed
Another Bowie-infused offering, and you’ll need a rich treble to properly render his eye-wateringly high harmonies toward the end of this Lou Reed treasure. We’re also fans of using live recordings, and can heartily recommend Morrissey’s cover of this song released as a tribute following Reed’s death in 2013.
Blue Monk by Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk’s improvisational styling really requires a hi-fi with a superior understanding of rhythm and dynamics. With a track such as this, organisation is also key to tying in the saxophone, bass and drum kit. If you don’t feel it, it ain’t right.
Night by Ludovico Einaudi
The inclusion of some of Ludovico Einaudi’s minimalist masterpieces in Shane Meadows’s seminal film This Is England opened up the Italian composer’s music to a whole new audience, but later works have seen him experiment more with electronic instruments as well. There are pulses in this track that will really dig deep into your system’s frequency range.
Sæglópur by Sigur Rós
For sheer scale, few modern arrangements propose a greater test of your system’s capabilities than those of Sigur Rós. Incidentally, it can be a great test for your budget Bluetooth speakers, which often attempt to sound bigger than they are; if you can keep your head above water with this track, you’ll probably do just about okay with anything.
There's No Leaving Now by The Tallest Man On Earth
One of those tracks that proves there is more to capturing the piano's magnificence on record than mere clarity. The title track from Kristian Matsson's third album as The Tallest Man On Earth, There's No Leaving Now is not quite lo-fi, but deserves a system willing to shine a light on its grainy, honest production. "I wanted a sound that had that brittle quality," Matsson said, "that feeling that it might just fall apart."
I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead by Mogwai
When we spoke to Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai he heralded the value of music in which there’s so much noise it can be difficult to know what’s going on. In hi-fi terms, those dense textures can often mean greater need for detail, dynamics and organisation, allowing you to become fully immersed in the soundscape without being confused as to what’s going on.
disintegration by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Somewhat the antithesis of Lubomyr Melnyk’s continuous piano, this piece from Ryuichi Sakamoto makes as much use of the spaces between the notes, letting each staccato jab decay before the next, as it does any kind of melody. Detail and sonic insight is key to the experimentation of this piece.
saman by Ólafur Arnalds
We promised more of Arnalds's work, and here we are. From last year's superlative record re:member, for which the composer co-created a piece of software whereby a pair of player pianos to chime in with random notes based on the patterns played by Arnalds on his control piano, saman is a sparser affair than found on much of the rest of the album. You should be able to hear the keys as much as the strings of the piano, so detail and a sympathetic production of subtle dynamics is imperative.
The Pure And The Damned by Oneohtrix Point Never & Iggy Pop
The standout piece from Oneohtrix Point Never's soundtrack for Good Time – a film well worth gifting 100 minutes of your own good time – The Pure And The Damned features Iggy Pop's iconic, conversational baritone vocal and will dig deep into your system's bass frequencies as much as it'll revel in a rich midrange.
Six Pianos by Steve Reich
Not one for elaborate metaphors or hidden meaning, Steve Reich wrote this minimalist masterpiece for, well, six pianos. Originally planned as Piano Store, to be played simultaneously on all instruments in a piano store, Reich has also reworked the piece for six marimbas. You'll never guess what he called that.
Radio Protector by 65daysofstatic
Quiet to loud, to quiet to loud, sections alternating between sparseness and potentially system-confusing density: 65daysofstatic's One Time For All Time album closer, much as the rest of the record, is in desperate need of kit that'll organise each strand and keep up with its bracingly idiosyncratic rhythms.
I Couldn't Love You More by Sade
It is often these kinds of laid back grooves that highlight poor kit's inability to drive a rhythm. A lot to do with dynamics as well as timing, I Couldn't Love You More shouldn't sound too eager, but equally it shouldn't drag or seem uninterested.
Evensong by Sarah Davachi
One probably to be listened to with the lights on, Sarah Davachi's Evensong marries gently waltzing piano chords with spookily reverberant synth drones for a gorgeous if slightly sinister composition. You can really test your system's detail levels by digging into the granular texture of those ghostly keys.
Nightswimming by R.E.M.
Effectively a duet between Mike Mills on piano and Michael Stipe singing, there are fewer more beautiful or more uplifting songs in R.E.M.’s immense repertoire. An open, spacious and expressive soundstage is imperative to doing it justice.
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