The Düsseldorf based composer Tom Blankenberg’s first album atermus, released in 2019, was very well-received by the public and highly acclaimed. His second release, et, on Less Records, aims at following in the footpaths of the former. Considered by the composer as a serious album, it deals and reacts with the past year and its pandemic, and expresses how the direct environment — one’s home — inspires and ignites creation. Through a series of nine pieces of varying lengths, the composer — with a parallel with food — amuses himself at creating a musical antipasto misto; a selection of fine, small and varying pieces. The result is an ambivalent mix of miniatures of contrasting moods, short stories, monologues in the language of classical, jazz, avant-garde and ambient music. The pianist has quite a musical personality, and the result is quite unique too.
Blankenberg says that he is interested in less rather than more, and while it is true in the approach of the artist, I found that through less, the composer actually says a lot (more than many others perhaps…). There is a lot of freedom in et, and often this translates as a musical vocabulary borrowed from the jazz world; “katzaki” is intimate, vaporous and recalls the atmosphere of city jazz clubs, and “acnor” is impressionistic and reminds of Bill Evans — more on that later. The composer ventures in his own personal musical worlds, from experimental and avant-garde, with “hibiscus” to ambient music, with the airy and refrained “less”.
What I found really interesting with et, is the fact that Blankenberg does not follow any of the (recent) standards of contemporary classical; his music really stands out from the rest. “W123” is a great example of how the composer clearly communicates a message of simplicity, yet with a vocabulary that is distinct. His control of space, time, silence and sound — such as in “kashmir” — is bliss. And of course, such attributes can only remind of the ethics of holy minimalism — I shall not say the name —, such as with “meniskus”.
Altogether, et, is difficult to define; there is always an element of surprise — “SLAS” —, which allows Blankenberg to move from boxes to boxes, rather than stick to one.
Blankenberg talks about et as a compilation of monologues; and this appears to be quite right; through the piano, one can hear the composer talking to us, in the most direct and pure way. The project is very different from what the lambda listener could expect in this niche of contemporary classical music, but it is less of a surprise when it comes to the musician behind it. Blankenberg is both an autodidact, and also a very versatile musician who is at home in the world of music from performing to engineering. Altogether, this leads to an album which really sounds distinct from the rest of the current musical output. It takes the road less traveled, and Blankenberg tightropes around advanced musical material without ever leaving the accessible category. There is no wish to sound in any way trendy or fashionable. In fact, if the form sounds familiar, the essence is very rich.
Other writings have mentioned the ghost of Bill Evans, and I have to admit that indeed this is the first name which came to my mind upon discovering et. Something must have been done correctly!
I generally listen and review music by listening to it closely; often with headphones, allowing myself to notice every single detail and intention. But as nature was opening itself up again, I found myself listening to et in the open air — contradicting its foundation —, on a quiet sunny yet windy afternoon, colouring the sound of nature and at times complementing it…