Klein and Jamison - Eight Paintings for Piano (Album Review)

British conductor Leopold Stokowski once opined, "A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence." This oft-quoted nugget of wisdom describes music's peculiar ability to occupy the physical world without being seen. However, it isn't necessary to have synesthesia to witness Strauss's pastoral world or Debussy's night sky. 

Circumventing this disassociation of the invisible from the visible, US artists Jim Klein and Ian Jamison have been collaborating since 2018, and their recent album, Eight Paintings for Piano, has a curious lo-fidelity sound. Unfortunately, for compositionally accomplished pieces, they sound as though they were recorded with a cheap microphone in an acoustically-disadvantaged room; the grand piano's wide-ranging tones compressed into a tinny, overly-saturated binary. Had these pieces been captured with the same method as the duo's more polished 2012 collaboration with pianist Katie Hughes, 2019's Six Preludes for Piano, a warm and vibrational collection, Eight Paintings for Piano would've been even more equanimous and stirring than it already is.


Nevertheless, these classically informed pieces have one eye on tradition and another on exploring the jagged edges of our modern world by juxtaposing memorable and traditionally beautiful ostinatos with more forceful and choppy sections, all captured with the contemporary immediacy of someone filming a viral clip on their smartphone. These compositions were performed diligently by Hughes, whose nimble fingerwork never skimps on intensity or flair. Her interpretations of the work focus on their absurdist core, which alludes to the sublime but perenially veers towards exploratory pensiveness.  

As the name suggests, each of the eight pieces presented corresponds to a visual counterpart. While these correlatives can be literal, with the moody "Two Little Boys Lost In The Woods" represented with a painting of ominously bare branches, other abstract pieces relate to non-representational images, such as the luscious "Three Words", the artwork of which is a pastel tinged expression with dripping strokes and is available to purchase from Jim Klein's website for 7,900 United States Dollars. 

Is Eight Paintings for Piano a supplement for the paintings, or vice versa? The title suggests that the pictures are for the piano, meaning their creation was predicated on the musical compositions and not the other way around. However, this workflow means the end results are the paintings, the fruit of the entire endeavour. As for how the music and paintings align, the bemused face of "Lucky Seven" mirrors that piece's menacing melody, the aptly-titled "Fugal" visually explores contrapuntal composition with dichotomous bright swirls and dark blocks of colour, the obscure "King Edward's Debacle" sees antagonistic counter melodies soundtrack a painting of two figures opposing each other in both stance and substance, "Under The Yellow Umbrella" is a cosy and familiar piece of sentimental notation that envelopes the listener in regal nobility, and the closing track "Big" is a searching piece that feels like it spirals downward, mimicking the black hole magnetism of that pieces' visual companion. 

Eight Paintings for Piano is a musically impressive and rich collection with questionable production quality and which over-ambitiously designates theme as a multitudinous associative exercise that explores how sound informs light and the contextual possibilities of making such associations. Featuring many uplifting and noteworthy ideas and stellar playing from Hughes, the effectiveness of this collection depends on the listener, on if they are willing to make concessions for the sometimes anxiety-inducing frequencies, and if they can put effort into replacing the beauty of a non-representational experience of music with something more literal. Either way, there's both pleasure and ideas to be found.