For 4 ½ years, pianist Dan Tepfer has been using modern technology to rethink the idea of the prepared player piano. His applying the coding program SuperCollider to respond to his playing on the Yamaha Disklavier while the visual program Processing is rendering a representation of the musical structure expressed: pitch, dynamics, rhythm, and harmony. The end product is more than a solo piano album– it’s a multimedia piece of contemporary art so well made in its process and components and expressed by such a thoughtful, talented, evocative pianist as Tepfer that Natural Machines as a whole is a complete experience.
Each of these eleven songs, all of them freely improvised with opener “All the Things You Are” being the only standard, involve Tepfer playing with the Disklavier responding back according to a certain set of programmed rules– notes are looped for stretches of time on “Looper”, the computer provides a bed of notes based on Tepfer’s on “Tremolo”, the computer responds to Tepfer’s playing with a multi-voice canon at the minor 9th on “Demonic March”, etc. These tools allow Tepfer not only to play with the music but the ideas embedded within them. His wondering what would happen if a chord on the left had to propel itself all the way to the right now has an answer that he an explore as long as the music would allow in “Constant Motion”, and he’s edited video of himself into dizzying spirals of squares and lines and circles mapping out just what we’re hearing, showing him literally getting lost in the music.
This visual aspect is what really brings this over the top. This music is great but it’s meant to be seen. Tepfer not only programmed these visuals, displaying the structure of sound like someone making the world of those with synesthesia made plain for the rest of us, but he also edited this video, moving himself in and out of the frame and providing focus and intensity as a filmmaker. This is a statement not only as a musician but also as a visual artist.
There’s something lovable about when Tepfer dances, feeling the groove he’s made, taking a brief moment to revel in the midst of the computer looping, basking in the breaks. The first third of “Looper” would seem like it would lend itself entirely to this sort of groove until the tune develops into something more pensive. The playfulness of “Inversion”, where the computer mirrors everything Tepfer is playing on the other end of the Disklavier, is an absolute joy, while “Intervals I / Industrial” in which the computer is producing intervals of every note played throughout the entire instrument is a fun gallop that goes by way too quickly.
Closer “Fractal Tree” explores the classic tree fractal for ten and a half minutes, opening up wider and wider with Tepfer plays alongside on the melodica. It’s an entirely engrossing song, wrapping everything up in its structure and pulling out so wide that all that is left from a tree is a line, like the subject of what’s under the microscope peering back at the heavens with Tepfer’s melodica buzzing off to find new sights and sounds to explore. After watching the whole album and this powerful, crushing last song, one may need to come back up for oxygen. It’s a real experience.
Jazz is an artform. It’s a medium of creative expression consisting of time, space, energy, and vibration, geared toward making the new, forging instant compositions in the moment based on the elements of past, whether from decades ago or in response to just one move ago. It generally is an auditory medium but every now and again an artist comes along to give that extra visual flair to the work, giving additional dimension and pushing the artform forward. With Natural Machines, Dan Tepfer has made a work of contemporary art — exploring what we think of music, nature, technology, and structure itself — and turned into something beautiful, made in the moment, captured and framed, and fit for consumption on a phone, laptop, television, or gallery space. It’s the literal definition of brilliance in that it is also exuding great light and for all these multiple reasons, as befitting a multimedia piece of art, it is worthy of our marveling in it.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.