Getting Into Gustavo Díaz-Jerez’ “Metaludios”

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DÍAZ-JEREZ: Metaludios, Books I-III / Gustavo Díaz-Jerez, pno / IBS Classical 182018

This was my introduction to composer-pianist Gustavo Díaz-Jerez, whose Metaludios are essentially piano etudes, but as the composer states in the notes, etudes with an attitude. “I have tried to give each Metaludio its own character,” he writes, “with distinguishing features that define its identity and differentiate it from the next. The titles give them away, sometimes because of the underlying scientific process, sometimes because of a mythological story…”

Some of the Metaludios have strange titles that, to me at least, gave nothing away because I could not comprehend what they meant: “Izar Iluna,” “Kenotaphion,” “Orahan,” “Rule 110,” etc. Others were much clear to me, i.e. “Homage to Antonio Soler,” “Succubus,” “Sisyphus,” “An error occurred,” Microsuite” and “Nonlinear recurrences.” Yet the music is, for the most part, intriguing and highly original. The music is atmospheric in the best sense of the word and modern insofar as it uses unusual chord positions and changes, yet there always seems to be a lyrical feeling to everything he writes and plays. It’s kind of like being caught at a piano recital in your dreams, where the pianist sits down and you think you’re going to get Brahms or Chopin, but instead the sounds that emerge from the keyboard are alien and almost defy description.

Not that I couldn’t describe these pieces technically. They are challenging but, for the most part, not as difficult to play as the music of Koechlin, Szymanowski or Sorabji. I mention those first two composers because, like them, Diaz-Jerez’ music seems to be very much allied to the Impressionistic school…i.e., Koechlin or Debussy filtered through the lens of Stravinsky and Ligeti. Approaching it with my waking mind in the spirit of adventure, I liked it very much because it communicates in its echt-alien way and makes musical sense, but I could understand how Alice, trapped in the Wonderland hallway with only tiny doors to escape from, would find it unsettling and perhaps even a bit creepy. If you orchestrated them, these pieces would make great background music for a surrealist science fiction film (Fantastic Planet comes to mind, or that Twilight Zone episode where a little boy gets trapped in an opaque, formless dimension in the wall behind his bed).

Occasionally, as in “Imaginary continuum,” you get a little bit of a regular rhythm in the bass line or, as in “Homenaje a Antonio Soler,” forward rhythms in double-time in the opening two minutes while the right hand plays its Impressionistic, alien figures above them. Díaz-Jerez has indeed found his own niche, a little trap door in the fabric of the musical space-time continuum, and he delights in misleading the listener’s ear. We approach each Metaludio expecting the music to continue and/or conclude in one way, but each one takes a left turn somewhere along the way and leads you, Pied Piper-like, down a strange and different rabbit-hole where you feel comfortable yet confused. You think you see light at the end of each piece’s little tunnel, but it just leads you nowhere, so you just sit down, puzzled, and try to figure out where to go next. In a piece like “Orahan,” which is slowly-played yet seems to be made up of little melodic fragments that sound alike yet strangely different, you almost feel as if you’re looking at a painting that has been broken up into small pieces like a jigsaw puzzle.

And it is exactly Díaz-Jerez’ frequent use of melody and what sounds to the ear like tonal harmony, but isn’t, that creates these illusions. “I have a nice bedtime story to tell you,” this music says, “so just relax while daddy tucks you in. Once upon a time, there was a fairy princess who walked into a marshmallow field. Her feet sank into the marshmallows and she felt so sleepy that she just had to lay down for a while to rest. That’s when the bog-spirits came and sang her a lullaby, and when she woke up she was in outer space with the flying monkeys and a floating billboard that said ‘This Way to Nowhere.’” In the Book I No. 6 piece, “Stheno,” Díaz-Jerez plays the inner strings of the piano at the beginning, creating yet another strange sound-world, which he alternates with running right-hand figures in a modal vein. At about 2:40, he moves into a jagged but strong rhythm using very low bass notes, against which he plays strange figures with the right hand. “Quantum foam” also features a great deal of inside-piano playing, this time in the lower reaches of the instrument. Indeed, most of Book II includes this technique as the music becomes ever spacier, reminding me of Almeida Prado’s Celestial Charts.

In Book III No. 1, “Prélude non mesuré,” Díaz-Jerez is playing a prepared piano, tuned in such a way that it sounds like neither mean-tone temperament nor equal temperament, but rather like some of Harry Partch’s quarter-tone music. The deeper you get into these pieces, the less chance you have of getting out of his musical rabbit-hole. The last of them, “Nonlinear recurrences,” almost sounds like a giant, neurotic spider trying desperately to escape its own web. Even I can’t tell how he created that continuous ambient sound that permeates this piece from its midpoint on.

This is surely not music for everyone, but I sure dug it and hope you will, too!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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