A plaintive, postmodern take on classical music
For a piece of classical music, everything on the page—the notes, the tempo, the key signature—is only the beginning. One’s ability to interpret these details is what allows them to distinguish themself as a musician. A sense of dynamics, phrasing, tone, perhaps even a knack for improvisation, are all key to distinctly interpreting a preexisting piece. Key point: classical music isn’t nearly as dogmatic or restrictive as it might appear to the uninitiated.
John Erik Kaada (simply known as “Kaada”), the prolific Norwegian composer famous for his film and television scores, exploits this truth not by merely interpreting, but by misinterpreting.
On Misinterpretations, Kaada’s latest release, the composer adapts a series of classical piano pieces by the likes of Frédéric Chopin, Claude Debussy and Franz Schubert, among others. Kaada breathes new life into these pieces by playing a piano prepared with heftemasse (or “Putty Kit,” as he calls it), an adhesive, glue-like substance. Some of the pieces are also recomposed (“postmodern classical” is certainly an apt description), but the Putty Kit method is the defining feature here.
Kaada praised the Putty Kit for its “organic and quirky elegance,” which is an accurate description. The substance adds an entirely new textural dimension to the piano playing, making it sound simultaneously like a piano and a plucked string instrument, or perhaps even a percussive instrument. The illusion of two distinct instruments being played at once results in a sound that’s more multilayered and concrete than what people might expect from a solo piano album.
Most of the compositions in Kaada’s stock are contemplative and brooding, a mood well suited for the pluckish effect of the Putty Kit. On tracks like Debussy’s “La Plus Que Lente,” the pizzicato-esque sounds imbue the composition with a heightened sense of frailty.
Sometimes these sounds take on a more overtly quirky tone, like on Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.” People are all familiar with this track; it was most famously used as the theme music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but lowbrows others might know it for its usage in cartoons like The Ren & Stimpy Show. The piece is jaunty and whimsical, with a steady trickle of lilting notes rendered almost tangible thanks to the Putty Kit—it sounds like someone tip-toeing across a floorboard.
But for the most part, the compositions chosen by Kaada are somber and plaintive, which is fitting given the album’s theme. “The theme of the album is about humans’ last moments and their final breaths,” Kaada said in a press release. This will emerge even to those unfamiliar with the original compositions, once again because of the Putty Kit. This miracle substance makes each note sound curt and unsustained, giving off an air of solitude. The effect is strengthened by Kaada’s usage of space—his “misinterpretations” are often sparse, with considerable silence between each note—as well as audio vérité details, like when he audibly breathes or sniffles.
Kaada best realizes this theme on Chopin’s “Prelude – Raindrop Op.28 n.15.” At first, his playing is serene and quiet. An A♭note ploddingly repeats like a delicate drizzle, before growing in intensity and eventually pounding with heart-wrenching, agonizing fervor (once again, the percussiveness of the PuttyKit deepens this). Throughout the track, people can hear Kaada draw in short, tight breaths, illustrating the sheer amount of physicality and soul he pours into the piece. Chopin’s composition is often compared to the sound of raindrops, but Kaada’s take sounds more like teardrops, shed out of righteous anger toward a world that’s slowly decaying.
Altogether, the employment of Putty Kit in conjunction with other major creative details—the piece selection, dynamics and audio vérité elements—make Misinterpretations a highly personal, intimate listening experience. These tracks might not be completely original, but the album is all Kaada—alone, perhaps quarantined in an all-grey room. It’s just him and his piano, recontextualizing old masterpieces to channel humanity’s dying gasps as they’re taken right outside his door.