Search The Line of Best Fit
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Exin sees Otto A. Totland deliver a persuasive and thoughtfully-constructed modern solo piano record

Release date: 14 June 2024
Otto A Totland exin album cover
05 June 2024, 15:36 Written by Ray Honeybourne

One half of Deaf Center, the Oslo-based electronica-meets-neo-classical duo, Otto A. Totland here delivers his third solo piano album, following 2014’s Ponô and 2017’s The Lost.

Recorded in Nils Frahm’s studio in the restored Berlin Funkhaus building, the formal centre of the GDR’s music output until the fall of the Wall, it affirms the ongoing relationship with Frahm that began with Deaf Center’s 2011 Owl Splinters.

With basic instrumentation, as here, subtlety and nuance define quality, given the acknowledged pianistic talent. What the Norwegian composer achieves in Exin is an impressive sense of delicacy that avoids descending into the precious. In a series of what are essentially miniatures, this represents a considerable feat. The pieces demand close attention in the way those of Satie do. There’s an apparently simple spareness characterising many of Satie’s piano compositions in the late 1800s, and Totland similarly focuses on creating a few clear, well-defined musical lines, usually without drifting too near any twentieth century Minimalist-derived patterns.

Perhaps the strongest affinity Exin has is with the Lyric Pieces of Totland’s fellow Norwegian, the great Edvard Grieg, who composed his sixty-six tiny, beautiful solo piano pieces over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century. Totland’s do not have the range that Grieg’s have, even in the selection of under a third of the total in the definitive Grieg recording by the Russian pianist, Emil Gilels, from 1974. Nevertheless, for anyone wanting to discover how thoughtful and communicative a modern solo piano recital can be, Exin is definitely worth exploring.

The Nils Frahm connection is of particular interest, in that Exin is reminiscent of a Frahm album such as 2008’s Wintermusik rather than, say, All Melody from nearly ten years later. The former featured keyboard instruments only, allowing one to appreciate the clarity of the developing of an idea in linear fashion. For Totland, too, the stress is on a sharply-delineated progression through each of the sixteen tracks.

The album took only three days to record, a remarkably short time for such precise music, with Frahm both encouraging and insisting on discipline during the process. Totland clearly benefited from this, as tracks such as opener “Savely” carry rhythm with a happy air of spontaneity rather than over-rehearsed academicism. The ending is well timed, without unnecessary elaboration.

Indeed, most of the material here runs under three minutes, allowing themes to be introduced and developed succinctly, as in the case of the title track in which the progress of rhythmic effects is quickly and economically presented without any redundant decorativeness. “Rift” has a mournful slowness, with emphasis on the lower notes, yet it doesn’t drag heavily, and the ability to sustain rhythm without undue forcefulness is a feature of much of this record. The only occasions when it does not work as fluently is in a track such as “Seveight” where the echoes of Glass-like Minimalism are just a little too much to the fore.

After the carefully measured and the sombre, it is highly agreeable to encounter, at the start of Side Two, the unrestrained jazz of “Tapper”, illustrating Totland’s ability to switch register to good effect. The higher notes dominating “Imilla” happily recall some elements of classical pastoralism, again changing mood and atmosphere skilfully. Such success should prompt Totland to expand his range more confidently on future solo projects, after this persuasive, thoughtfully-constructed album.

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