Review: Retronyms by Carlos Cipa – a remarkable, near-flawless work from one of the most insightful musicians of the present moment

It’s common for young artists to begin their careers by paying tribute to the people who have inspired them the most. After I published my first science fiction novel, several readers pointed out the evident similarities to Frank Herbert’s Dune, my all-time favorite book in the genre.

This is part of a process of growth, prompted by a desire to see how one measure up against ones heroes. As an artist matures, the influences are still there, but their presence is subtler, suggested rather than exclaimed. In most cases, it comes with time and experience. In the case of Munich-based composer and pianist Carlos Cipa, this creative maturity appears to be innate.

When Cipa released his first two records, The Monarch and the Viceroy and All Your Life You Walk  – the former influenced by the likes of Satie, Debussy and Chopin, the latter with a subtle nod to Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert – these influences revealed themselves in a way that felt natural and intimate, as though the young composer’s creative identity had emerged in full form.

His third record, Retronyms, originated from a stated desire to “further explore the idea of orchestrating my music, getting the pure piano-based ideas into a more colorful palette.”

“This was the idea for Retronyms in the first place,” the composer told me in a recent interview. “Having the piano at the center, but building around it a lot of different sounds, a lot of different instruments. I wanted to create my own color palette of sounds.”

The resulting work is a spectacular study of space, sound and natural growth, an album whose complexity and elegance are on a par with the finest recordings in the ECM catalog. By titling the album, Retronyms, a neologism used to describe “a subsequent name change that provides a new term for something old“, Cipa all but confirms that this shift in his compositional approach is not the result of the passive progress inherent in creative evolution but rather a conscious, intentional act, revealing a musician with a profound understanding of personal and artistic identity.   

Recorded and mixed at Carlos’ own Beatschuppen Studio in Munich and released by the prestigious Warner Classics label, Retronyms revolves around four lengthy tracks based on compositions, tied together by four experimental miniatures that add depth and texture to the imagined soundscape.

The album starts with “fanfare”, a short introduction created from samples of trombonist Christopher Mann’s rehearsal, then condensed by the composer through various processing methods. It has a revelatory purpose, announcing this new, experimental approach, but it also serves as a point of origin for what turns out to be a methodically constructed musical microcosm. 

Much like the opening piece from Brian Shankar Adler‘s Fourth Dimension, “fanfare” brings to mind a sort of incipient combustion, from which the music gradually expands. Whereas Fourth Dimension focuses on the confrontational, chaotic process of achieving balance, Retronyms seems to present its end result. The songs unravel with almost uncanny ease as the composer makes careful use of space and time to achieve the maximum aesthetic potential of each note.

Based on repetition as a medium for development and exploration, the music is made unmonotonous by the gradual addition of new instruments and sounds with each unfolding layer. This stratified structure manifests itself differently in each song.

The first of the compositions, “senna’s joy”, has a concentric design, with a soft piano theme producing a ripple effect as each new wave pushes the song’s thematic message further. The rest of the instruments seem to gently encourage the piano, building a subtle crescendo that reaches its apex with the addition of Teresa Allgeier’s sublime violin. Though the track is somewhat hurt by its discrepantly dramatic finale, it remains one of the album’s highlights.

While the composer admitted to thinking of music in the abstract, it’s easy to ascribe a nature-oriented theme to the compositions. The four transitional miniatures, each highlighting one particular instrument, evoke a type of imagery associated with natural phenomena, from the smoldering quality of Mann’s trombone on the album’s opener, to the granular undertones of Matthias Lindermayr’s breathy trumpet in “paon” or the tension created by Allgaier’s violin in “awbsmi”, seemingly suggestive of the calm before a storm.

In the airy “mame”, Cipa’s notes feel as though they’re being whisked away by a light breeze, gently spinning around a tonal center, before settling like droplets into the fluid structure of “and she was”, another one of the album’s highlights.

In “slide.”, Dieter Dolezel’s electric guitar echoes Cipa’s piano, creating an ebb-and-flow effect, while the uplifting “dark tree” presents the instruments in a state of perfect equilibrium, invigorated, as if in vernal bloom.

The album concludes with “paon”, where the mournful sound of Lindermayr’s trumpet over Cipa’s somber, percussive playing creates a feeling of distance. According to the composer, it was an intentional departure from the established aesthetic, meant to open up a new world to be explored on a future record. On the merit of Retronyms alone, that sounds like a fascinating prospect.

While the word masterpiece is certainly overused, it feels almost like sacrilege not to refer to this album as such. A remarkable, near-flawless work from one of the most insightful, profound and evocative musicians of the present moment.

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