Ecstatic Descent CB0047
The music

Ecstatic Descent is a prepared-piano work that melds composed and improvisational elements to create an intensely animated, one-of-a-kind textural soundworld. Performed here by the composer, at times it may call to mind an enormous out-of-control music box or mechanical toy. It also readily lends itself to comparisons to various ever-changing (yet ever the same) natural sound phenomena, and has been likened by composer Annea Lockwood to the bubbling frequencies of a river.

Describing Ecstatic Descent’s various aspects (preparations, performance, structure), the composer writes:

“Generally, the white keys are treated with timbral preparations such as paper, rubber, or a screw at a harmonic [node]. These change the tone color but not the pitch. The black keys are treated with double preparations, such as bolts, screws, and cardboard strips. These change the tone color and lower the pitch. By sliding the preparations along the length of the strings I can fine-tune to pitches in the prevailing key, always listening for the most interesting harmonic and inharmonic resonances.

“Another important dimension to the preparations is the distribution or layering of different colors across the keyboard. Each layer (double bolts, single bolts, paper, rubber, cardboard) forms an interesting ‘shape’ or ‘chord’ across the keyboard…. Together, these shapes create a kind of jigsaw of interlocking relationships. Finally…I tape down some bass keys, rendering those notes ‘mute.’

“The main principle I’m using in the performance is ‘sounding’ all the pitches in a particular zone of the keyboard at one time. This is to say I’m playing in a pointillistic style, as fast as possible, trying to avoid periodic rhythms and repetition in general. It’s a very organic performance technique. I’m really going with my natural physicality to produce what I think of as rhythmic ‘clustering.’ I’m inspired by free jazz artists like Cecil Taylor or Rashied Ali. John Coltrane described Ali’s playing as ‘multidirectional,’ which is an idea I find really intriguing. In another sense I’m inspired by sounds of nature—rivers, bird calls, insects, wind—which often seem to form repeating patterns but are never exactly the same twice.

“Using the techniques and influences above, Ecstatic Descent follows a strict and slowly unfolding structure. I start with the top four pitches of the piano. Each minute I add another four to five pitches, moving to the left, or downwards across the instrument. Each time a new cluster of pitches is added, I have to alter my performance technique to maintain the same intensity in the texture. Towards the end of Part A (I split the performance into two [parts]), all pitches across the keyboard are active, and I strive to keep as many strings resonating as possible at all times. In part B, I…intersperse unpredictable pauses, with the focus on listening to the decay of the instrument. All notes remain active in the texture. Finally, five minutes from the end I take up a small mallet (like a chopstick) in my right hand and continue the pointillistic ‘cluster’ textures with the new color.”

The composer-performer

Erik Griswold’s unrestrainedly exhilarating music has been described as “startlingly fresh...intelligent, intuitive and original” (The Courier Mail), “colorful and refreshingly unpretentious” (Paris Transatlantic), and “kaleidoscopic” (Modisti), and has been said to remind us that “music of a more esoteric nature can be engaging and fun” (RealTime).

Griswold is a composer and pianist working in contemporary classical, improvised, and experimental forms. His particular interests include prepared piano, percussion, environmental music, and music of China’s Sichuan province. Originally from San Diego and now residing in Brisbane, Australia, he composes, performs as a soloist and in the award-winning duo Clocked Out (with percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson), and collaborates with various adventurous musicians, artists, dancers, and poets.

Griswold’s music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, Cafe Oto, the Chengdu Arts Centre, the Melbourne Festival, the OzAsia Festival, the Brisbane Festival, and numerous other venues and festivals around the world. He is a recipient of an Australia Council Fellowship in Music, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and numerous individual grants. He has collaborated with such well-known musicians as Steven Schick, Margaret Leng Tan, Vicki Ray, the Australian Art Orchestra, Decibel Ensemble, Zephyr String Quartet, Ensemble Offspring, and many others. His music can be heard on the Mode, Innova, Room40, Move, Clocked Out, and Immediata labels.

Describing his music, Griswold writes, “My works focus on layering of rhythms, textures, and ideas. I'm interested in hybrid sound combinations and unusual intersections at the margins of music and sound making—the places where one discipline, genre, or resonance merges into another. These notions manifest themselves in musical structures (polyrhythm), altered or repurposed sound sources (prepared piano), unexpected convergences of musical styles (‘Sichuan jazz’), or experimental hybrids of improvised and notated music.”


“Erik Griswold…is a composer and pianist with a special interest in prepared piano, percussion, environmental music and music of China's Sichuan province, and listening to his piece Ecstatic Descent I can see all of these interests…. In this piece he prepares all of the notes of the piano…. The whole piece sounds great; it is very rhythmical, very tonal, but to a certain degree also abstract and throughout very percussive. This is indeed very much something of why I like the releases of Cold Blue Music…. , one of my favorite labels for modern minimal music, the world of serious composers and performers.” —Vital Weekly (The Netherlands)
“Erik Griswold’s aptly titled Ecstatic Descent is a forty-minute-long composition for prepared piano, here performed by the composer. Griswold prepared the piano with a painstaking method to preserve the white keys’ pitches while lowering the black key’s pitches, yielding an instrument of varied colors tuned to A minor. The piece is divided into two roughly equal parts, the first of which is a thickly textured, continuous but slow movement downward from the top to the bottom of the keyboard. The second part interweaves pauses into the texture. It’s a work of cascading tones that sound at different times like a gamelan, bells, rain on a metal roof, or a nylon-string guitar. Underlying much of the piece is an oscillating movement in fourths, which implies a certain harmonic mobility within an otherwise static key.”—Daniel Barbiero, Percorsi Musicali (Italy)
“Nietzsche's division of art into the Apollonian, or the even-keeled, the stately and perhaps, reserved, and the Dionysian, the ecstatic, orgiastic, the exuberantly unleashed, can be illuminating when applied to music. John Cage's prepared piano music might be seen fruitfully as the former, unwinding at a steady and understated pace. Erik Griswold's prepared piano opus Ecstatic Descent (Cold Blue Music CB0047), on the other hand, is firmly in the Dionysian camp, a beautiful torrent of exotic-timbred notes.
“For those new to all this the prepared piano was essentially invented by Cage by inserting metal, rubber and other sonically altering objects on or between the strings to give the piano a radically transformed sound more like a percussion orchestra than not. His series of prepared piano works from the late '30s on were breakthrough works that first definitively identified him as an important American composer. Through the years others took on this configuration in various ways. Erik Griswold gives us his very own take—with a rousingly manic, key-centered adventure fascinating to hear. Halfway through there are brief pauses now and again that re-situate the tumult and give it definition.
“The 45-minute work has so rich a cornucopia of sound colors that it never ceases to fascinate. There is not a minute too much. All lays out fittingly, with a fresh ambiance that neither relaxes nor wearies the close listener. Kudos! This is a blast.”—Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

“Erik Griswold's kaleidoscopic material ripples, sparkles, and flutters like sunlight reflecting off a water's surface, the ear constantly dazzled by a plethora of pianistic detail. Working within the prepared-piano tradition, the contemporary classical composer realized Ecstatic Descent by first altering every note of the piano with bolts, screws, cardboard, paper, and rubber and then executing the piece in real time. As captivating as the resultant piano sounds are, he's hardly the first artist to have modified a keyboard in such a manner; what more recommends the work is what he did beyond converting the instrument into ‘a miniature percussion orchestra.’ While a strict compositional structure is in place, the piece was also designed to accommodate improvisation as the performer, Griswold in this case, works his way downwards from the very top of the piano using animated, unpredictable clusters of incredible density as building blocks….

“Griswold drew for inspiration for the piece from both the ‘multidirectional' playing of free jazz figures such as Cecil Taylor or Rashied Ali and the sounds of nature where in Heraclitean manner patterns might appear to repeat but never do so in quite the same way twice. Such ideas manifest themselves in Ecstatic Descent in the extremely rapid attack he applies to the work's first half especially, an effect that dizzies and dazzles the listener in equal measure.
“Tinkling brightly during its opening moments, the piece gradually opens up as Griswold expands the range of notes by adding lower pitches to the higher. In this initial stage, the spidery skeins of doctored piano patterns might be likened to multiple music boxes (or even thumb pianos) playing simultaneously and each sourcing a different range of pitches. “Though Ecstatic Descent is, formally speaking, a single-movement work, two distinct parts declare themselves, with the incessant activity of the first part markedly different from the second, where the playing is interrupted by extended pauses and the focus shifts to the natural decay of the instrument. The change happens abruptly, too, with the sound mass coming to a sudden stop at the halfway mark, the patterns appearing thereafter as subdued, unfurling expressions

“Whereas many a composition blossoms from modest beginnings into a dynamic, full-bodied construction that culminates in a grand climax, Griswold's piece does the opposite: opening dynamically, the material gradually slows as if energy is slowly draining from it. In this regard, its entropic design mirrors life in the way it progresses from the high spirits of youth to the ebbing away of energy during one's final moments. It's such details that ultimately give the work its distinguishing character more than its prepared piano treatments, as interesting, soundwise, as they are.”—Ron Schepper, Textura