Bill Wells & Stefan Schneider - "Pntps 7" (Pianotapes)
Pianotapes, the third collaboration involving Scottish jazz composer Bill Wells and German electronica mainstay (and To Rococo Rot member) Stefan Schneider, is built from a concept so simple you wonder how it can produce results so beguiling. Invited to perform at Düsseldorf’s Approximation piano festival, the duo sits in a room, Wells stationed at the festival’s instrument of choice, Schneider on tape recorders and Roland Echo 301, and engage in a process of generative, relaying music similar to the one Brian Eno and Robert Fripp instigated on their landmark collaboration, No Pussyfooting.
Except, Wells and Schneider never drone. On Pianotapes, Wells plays descending scales and chords, sometimes picking out notes to puzzle over, while Schneider quietly drapes loops and manipulations of Wells’s piano playing in the air, rather like a patient parent stringing Christmas lights across the new season’s curtains. Patience and improvisation are virtues of both Wells’ and Schneider’s previous music, though the latter may come as a surprise to listeners expecting the rigidity of some of To Rococo Rot’s more formalist conceits. But improvisation is a mutable beast, and here Wells and Schneider make music within arm’s reach of quiescence, which nonetheless admits moments of hesitancy, doubt and exploration.
Not to downplay Schneider’s role on Pianotapes, but much of the album’s character is due to Wells, whose peculiar genius is his capacity to sound both as though he’s never touched a piano before in his life, and as though he was born inside the instrument. Wells’s melodies on much of Pianotapes are wafer-thin yet assured, tiny paper sailboats of tunes tossed out onto a forgiving sea of humid electronics and deep blue silences. Schneider’s great skill is the simple way he feeds Wells back into the room, often making it hard to distinguish the real-time from the processed.
When Schneider lazily dribbles Mapstation-esque electronics patterns into the mix, as on “PNTPS 88,” Wells nudges slyly at these almost sub-rosa pulses, inching around a few gentle inversions. It’s lovely because it’s so suggestive — there’s nothing particularly demonstrative about it, but paradoxically, therein lays its strength. I found it utterly charming, and reminiscent of Harold Budd at his most quizzically questing.