Pianist Extraordinaire Ludovico Einaudi joins the Lippoks on a futuristic journey

Against all odds, pianist Ludovico Einaudi has emerged as one of the world’s most exciting and beloved voices in classical music. Living during a time where modern sensibilities are marketed as easily manufactured (and easily forgettable) pop hits, Einaudi stands tall as a passionate purveyor of his lifelong muse. None of this implies that the Milan resident is without knowledge of the present: his latest collaboration—Whitetree, with brothers Ronald and Robert Lippok—is an important contribution to the century-old search for the merging of classical and electronic music. Considering Einaudi’s recent accolades, such as being the only classical artist invited to perform at the European iTunes Festival, Whitetree’s success is guaranteed.

The trio’s debut, Cloudland (Ponderosa Music & Arts/Harmonia Mundi) is an exciting blend of Einaudi’s gorgeously refined aesthetics on piano set against Ronald Lippok’s sympathetic and knowledgeable rhythms on drums (not to mention the magic he creates on marimba and keyboards), as well as brother Robert’s wizardry with electronics—the brothers are two-thirds of the Berlin and Dusseldorf-based palindromic post-rock group To Rococo Rot. Meeting in 2006 when Einuadi invited the Lippoks on an Italian tour, a collaboration seemed necessary and, as one can hear on every one of Cloudland’s ten tracks, effortless.

Whitetree has been born into an important musical heritage, one professed by musical experimenters such as Erik Satie’s minimalist efforts and “bare bones” sounds, Luigi Russolo’s search for the “art of noise” (in which music is differentiated from noise by its purposive arrangement), Jorg Mager’s love of microtones and the invention of his “voice of the spheres,” and later Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Indeed, that last contemporary’s film work recalls Einaudi’s own cinematic efforts, such as his soundtrack work for Fuori Dal Mondo and This is England. Perhaps these three men, upon entering the Berlin studio in 2007-08, set out to champion the message of conductor Leopold Stowkowski: “Soon we shall have entirely new methods of tone production by electrical means. Thus will begin a new era of music.”

One certainly feels that listening to Cloudland in the comfort of their headphones, or snuggled into a warm space encompassed by crisp speakers from which these artists speak. The surround-sense experience is gripping: the opening “Slow Ocean,” a reverberating, lo-fi echo creeps into a synthesized dreamscape before Einaudi’s first notes take hold; instantly one is hypnotized. It is the type of song—indeed, this is the type of album—that holds the listener in its spell. When the drums finally emerge on “Kyril,” the release is rapturous; this is the ecstatic union of classical temperament with technology, an audio textbook of generations bonding. When one is aware of history, one can write it into the future—this is Whitetree’s great gift.

To pigeonhole Einaudi would be fruitless. While classical music is his foundation, he is no less educated in that fine line where popular music meets film meets radio play. His contribution to “Kyril” hints at this, as does the simple and direct melody of “Mercury Sands.” His sense of timing is superb, as when he hangs a half-beat behind his piano with the guitar on “Koepenik” every step of the way. The naturalness in their music was the result of time well spent on the road and a natural camaraderie formed between the three, as Robert says:

“We played as a band. Always live, always in one room. With just a few overdubs. We wanted it to be as natural as possible. This is what made mixing the record so adventurous. We had so many takes of our songs to go through! Going into the studio together was very special. Our tour had been quite ‘loud,’ full-on. Recording the material, we had the chance to add some quiet ideas as well.”

These quieter moments are of equal merit. “Derek’s Garden,” with its haunting effects reminiscent of one trudging along the interior of a dark castle that he or she was not invited to, calmed by the sensuous strains of Einaudi’s ivory. The playfully titled “Ulysses and the Cats” also exhibits those reflective, internal qualities, reminding one of the mythological inspiration for Einuadi’s last solo recording, Divenire: the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, with the famous maxim attributed to him: everything is in a state of flux. One can claim this to be a headline for all of Einaudi’s projects, Whitetree contributing the most recent and possibly most versatile to his vast catalog. Given the fluidity by which the album was recorded, Einaudi seems to agree:

“It all came out very naturally, from the first sessions in the rehearsal room. Listening and concentrating to sounds and loops made by Robert and Ronald, sometimes I didn’t even know who was making it. I sat at the piano and closed my eyes, entered that space of sounds, and I opened my imagination. It was like searching figures and forms in an abstract painting or pulling out emotions from the clouds. Then we were playing for long, losing ourselves into the music, responding to each other inputs, it was like building castles with the sand, no rules, everything was possible.”

This then is the role of the artist: to make real the images and sounds one hears in their imagination. Borrowing its name from the Amos Tutuola novel, The Palm-Wine Drunkard, Whitetree is forging a modern mythology, both very old and rooted in the Western classical tradition as well as up-to-date with the everyday life of our technologically-inclined world. Interestingly, another of Tutuola’s novels, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was the title of the seminal album recorded by Brian Eno and David Byrne in 1981; today it is heralded as the first “world music electronic” album. Perhaps in three decades Whitetree will be seen to have made a similar mark for their important blend of classical and electronic music. With one listen to this album, you will agree.

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