Based in Michigan, Erik Hall is a musician, composer and producer who has already recorded with bands like NOMO and Wild Belle or as a solo artist under the In Tall Buildings moniker. As a multi-instrumentalist fascinated by minimalism, Erik Hall recently devoted himself to reinterpret American composer Steve Reich’s landmark 1976 Music for 18 Musicians. Released in May 2020 last, the solo “reconstruction” was recorded using multi-tracked prepared piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, Moog synthesizer, electric guitar, electric bass, drum machine and processed voice.

This particular tour de force sets the scene for his latest project. Originally composed for four pianos in 1976, Canto Ostinato is a lesser-known minimalist composition by classical Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt (1923 – 2012). Eschewing the use of digital loops, programming or sequencing, Erik Hall’s solo version of Canto Ostinato (Western Vinyl – February 2023) was recorded using a 1962 Hammond M-101 organ, a 1978 Rhodes Mark I electric piano and his family-heirloom 1910 Steinway grand piano.

Erik Hall - Canto Ostinato (2023)
Erik Hall – Canto Ostinato (2023)

Canto Ostinato is built around a central five-note rhythmic motif or “cell” which acts as a basic building block for the entire piece which is comprised of 106 sections in total. In other words, unlike conventional sheet music with precise indications for every instrument regarding dynamics or tempo, the score acts as a basic road map, giving performers the freedom to engage with and shape the piece as they wish.

Canto Ostinato was originally scored for four pianos, but a quick scan through past recordings or live performances on YouTube reveals a wide range of interpretations. The piece has been performed for solo piano or miscellaneous combinations of 2, 3 or 4 pianos, keyboards, marimbas, organs, vocal ensembles, harps, percussions and accordions. As well as that, performances vary in length due to the sparse instructions from the composer and can last from forty minutes to a full day. What prompted Erik Hall to keep his version just under the hour mark was simply the practical consideration of a Vinyl release. All three instruments were performed live and subsequently multi-tracked into an uninterrupted hour-long sequence.

There is a pseudo-meditational benefit to working on a longform piece that’s built on repetition. Every stage— from internalizing the music, to executing the performance, to editing and mixing the record— requires deep and sustained presence of mind. I’ve always been drawn to a hallucinatory combination of harmony and repetition, and I found the entire process addictive.

Devoid of any introduction or prelude, Canto Ostinato immediately immerses the listener into its absorbing and shifting melodic patterns. Both mathematical and organic in nature, the repetitive motifs slowly evolve over the entire course of the record in a hypnotic fashion, with the musician seamlessly alternating between three different keyboard sounds – and there are many exquisite twists and turns along the way when switching from one section to another.

There is a deliberate vintage and DIY approach to the overall production consistent with the moment in time the piece was composed. It is also interesting to note that if Simeon ten Holt wrote mainly for piano or chamber music ensembles, he also had an ear for electronic and tape music for which he conceived a small selection of pieces in the early 1970s.

In an effort to emphasise the inherent warmth and physical presence of the keyboards, there was a conscious decision on the part of the performer to preserve all the incidental keyboard noises in the final mix – as is the case with many modern classical recordings nowadays. These minute technical details set Erik Hall’s version clearly apart from the existing canon of impeccable hi-fi recordings by classical performers for the most part, thus giving it a radical contemporary stamp.

Erik Hall’s version of Canto Ostinato has been introduced as the second instalment in a trilogy of classical minimalism. Speculation is already rife over the subject matter of the third instalment.