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.

Reviewing a recent live performance of Ecstatic Descent, a critic at The Creative Issue wrote, “I could not take my eyes off his hands, although his fingers were moving so exceptionally swiftly that it was not possible to lucidly focus on them…. Making his way from the high notes to the low, and literally every note in between, Griswold offered an enchanting performance that left fellow concertgoers defining in delighted disbelief ‘extraordinary!’”

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.

About 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.”


Ecstatic Descent is certainly an apt title for this 40-minute excursion into the world of prepared piano, courtesy of Eric Griswold, but the evocative imagery of that title is only one variable in a complex and fascinating equation. The Australian composer has prepared the piano so that its tuning, in A Minor, is complemented by an intricate series of timbres that would have made John Cage proud. Amidst various configurations of felt, screws, and bolts, we are treated to a transculturally provocative panorama of percussive intricacy that does indeed descend through the first 21 minutes. However, and with stunning and expertly timed abruptness, a silence ensues. Silence, once such an integral part of discussions about music and whatever its opposites might be, has seemingly become even more radicalized than before due to its relative absence in the marketplace, from the metro station to the megamart. The rest of Griswold’s piece is fraught with it as what has transpired before as a morphing unity is fragmented, reexamined, and cellular augmented. Register becomes as unpredictable as timbre, which becomes diffuse and sharply focused by turn. Very few pieces celebrate the art of density becoming absence, and here again, a Cage comparison seems appropriate, as the epic but ultimately sparse Empty Words seems a fit comparison, if in intent rather than scope.

“Where production is concerned, this is quite a spread, and I mean that literally! The few Cold Blue Music releases I’ve heard take the stereo spectrum into account in a way other labels would benefit by observing. Each detail inhabits its own environment, not just a part of the soundstage. Maybe it’s better to say that the whole notion of a soundstage has been subverted, or at least expanded, and this is especially evident with good speakers in a suitable listening environment. When the final notes fade, or rather are absorbed into the silence that was so integral to the piece’s second half, a satisfying sense of connection and resolution is palpable. This is music whose opening minutes are deceptively simple and whose form and structure reward deep and repeated listening.” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine

“John Cage was not the first composer to ‘prepare’ a piano by placing various objects between or around its strings, but he was the first to compose extensively for it. This started in 1938, and necessity was the mother of invention: Finding a performance venue too small for a percussion orchestra, Cage found a way to replace the percussion with a single grand piano. In his words, ‘With just one musician, you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard.’

“For Ecstatic Descent, composer Erik Griswold has prepared every note of a piano (an R. Lipp & Sohn piano dating from 1887, to be precise) in his home with bolts, screws, strips of rubber, cardboard and paper…. In the Cold Blue press release, Griswold speaks of his music as experimenting with hybrids between improvised and notated music. No two performances of Ecstatic Descent will ever be the same. I guess one could call Ecstatic Descent a semi-premeditated jam on a prepared piano…. The timbres…remind me of an over-wound music box or a set of wind chimes in which the smallest chime sounds most often, and the largest chime least often. One can also imagine an entire gamelan orchestra on crack cocaine! Composer Annea Lockwood likened this work to ‘the bubbling frequencies of a river,’ and that’s good too.” —Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare magazine

“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 keys’ 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

“This is 40 minutes of extraordinary music for prepared piano that extends the technique beyond that of the influential John Cage. Combined with a style of playing based on rhythmic clusters, the result is an impressive work that explores new horizons of tone color and textural density in a singularly satisfying way…. The initial purpose for piano preparation as practiced by Cage was for the enhancement of the percussive component in his music to accompany dance—the sharper sounds from his prepared piano provided a more precise beat and sharper rhythm for the dancers. By comparison, Griswold has designed his piano preparation to expand the harmonic and timbral possibilities of the instrument…. All of this produces a marvelously organic feel as the starting notes evoke visions of water trickling down a small rivulet or brook. As the pitches move lower, there is a sense that the flow is growing stronger. Each change in tone creates a vivid new experience in timbre and sonority, attesting to the thoroughness and care of Griswold’s preparation.

“This transformation in the sound of the piano is unexpectedly delightful and the rapid pattern of notes is very much like watching a waterfall—there is the same sense of dynamic movement and stasis. The playing is active and always in motion, with the many individual notes building into a complete picture in the style of a pointillist painting. Even with the continuing flood of notes, there is a peaceful and natural feel to this combined at times with a strong sense of the exotic. As the piece reaches the middle and lower registers, an air of depth and mystery is added.

“At the midpoint, Ecstatic Descent shifts from a continuous stream of sounds to a series of short bursts, followed by silence. All of the pitches remain active and after each short cluster is heard, the tones are allowed to ring out and decay. This changes the feeling from free-flowing and primal to a more introspective, metaphysical sensibility. The space afforded by the silence allows for a brief moment of contemplation and imparts a sense of purpose that is very moving. Some five minutes from the end, the prepared piano strings are struck by a small mallet that changes the tone color and timbre yet again. The notes become thinner and sharper, almost needle-like in their precision. At this point the sounds seem to be coming from some combination of Asian instruments and not from anything like a piano. At length the phrases become softer and less frequent, ultimately drifting away at the finish.

Ecstatic Descent is an inspired work based on an innovative approach to that most conventional of instruments. Without melody, harmony, or beat, Erik Griswold has managed to create powerful music that connects with both the natural with the spiritual.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21

“I’ve loved prepared piano ever since I was a teenager. There’s something about the sheer brazenness of it—taking timbre, the one dimension of pianistic sound that has traditionally been completely outside of the pianist’s control, and altering it completely—that I find thrilling. But much more important than the conceptual aspect of prepared pianism is the almost infinite variety of timbral opportunities it provides, and on this 41-minute-long composition composer and pianist Erik Griswold seems to take advantage of almost all of them. But Griswold doesn ?t only use objects such as bolts, screws, strips of rubber, cardboard, and paper to change the tone of his instrument; he also positions the objects on the strings in such a way that he ends up tuning the entire instrument to the key of A minor, ensuring that all of the music’s development will take place in the realms of voicing and tone. The result is like a massive set of variously-muted wind chimes with a bad case of ADHD, and it’s wonderful.” —Rick Anderson, CD Hotlist: New Releases for Libraries

“Griswold is an Australia-based composer and pianist, with a number of previous releases on the Australian experimental music label Room 40. His interests lie in hybrid sound combinations and unusual intersections of music and sound. Ecstatic Descent (also the title of the single 41-minute track) is his first release for Cold Blue Music, a creation on prepared piano, which in Griswold’s world means adding paper, rubber, screws, cardboard strips, and bolts at the harmonic nodes of various strings, changing the tone color and altering the pitch. Keys that are not used are taped down, or muted. The result is a piano that sounds more like a collection of percussion devices than a conventional piano. When I listen to this, I am reminded of a summer afternoon I spent resting in the parking lot of a Japanese nursery in Cupertino, California, windows down, in the immediate vicinity of several wind wheels that would trigger percussive sounds as they turned, rotating at different speeds and responding to changes in the speed of the wind by either turning faster, or sometimes stopping altogether. Here, as it did there, the sounds start gently and somewhat randomly, drawing your attention in, eventually encompassing more sounds at greater volume levels and a variety of different timbres, some moving more quickly and others managing at a different pace. There is rhythm, but it ?s random and not at all periodic or unified for all sounds together, what the composer calls ‘rhythmic clustering’ and it seems to reflect many of the rhythmic patterns of nature. As the piece progresses and builds, more sounds joining those before them slowly build to a crescendo just around the 20 minute mark, then everything stops for a moment of silence, and then various elements of the percussive chorus reintroduce themselves and stop again at random intervals, much when like the gusts of wind would start and stop on that summer afternoon at the nursery. Ecstatic Descent is first and foremost an interesting composition borne of an alternate soundworld, but even if the listener chooses not to pay close attention, it is nonetheless relaxing and captivating on the subliminal level.” —Peter Thelan, Exposé

“Clusters of notes in rapid succession create a swarm of sounds suspended in a dreamlike and slightly restless atmosphere. Rapid figures run along the piano keyboard—’prepared,’ as did John Cage, with the addition of objects of all kinds, and played by Griswold ?from the highest registers to deepest ones. Melodic fragments emerge from time to time from the incessant, emotional rippling of sounds. Then, starting from about halfway through the piece, its perpetual motion begins to be interrupted by increasingly frequent breaks. The discourse becomes more rarefied, light and unpredictable: again, the spirit of Cage becomes our guide in a search for a personal path to Minimalism.” —Filippo Focosi, Kathodik (Italy)