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Shoot the piano player

Robert Stillman returns with Master Box
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  July 22, 2009

SHINE A LIGHT Up-and-coming musician Robert Stillman.

Robert Stillman's music is like an anachronistic, sepia-toned spin on the fanciful film scores of Jon Brion (Punch-Drunk Love, I Heart Huckabees). Both make fleet-footed, extremely visual piano songs with trotting melodies, a natural fit for an old silent short. Their compositions bustle with activity and exposition, but are quick to embrace fleeting moments of melancholy or melodrama. But where Brion's work is rooted is '60s pop, Stillman's material takes a longer view, based in pre-jazz forms like ragtime and boogie-woogie blues. At its foundation, Stillman's work evokes images of bar brawls, oncoming trains, and wild gesticulations, but the loving romanticism of his narratives is infused with experimental touches that both examine and repurpose the legacy of early American music.

Stillman, aged 30 and born and raised in Maine, currently lives in Brighton, England. His previous releases include 2006's Robert Stillman's Horses (Mill Pond Records) and the beautiful 2007 CD/DVD set 3 Early Maine Films (L'Animaux Tryst (Field) Recordings), comprised of scores to archival logging films. In the past couple of years, Stillman earned a master's degree in music from the University of Sussex, performed 3 Early Maine Films at the David Bowie-curated H&M High Line Festival, and was recently spotted playing with Grizzly Bear on the UK late-night show Later ... with Jools Holland.

He returns to the States this week to release his latest effort, the Master Box EP, which is the first on Stillman's new boutique label, aptly named Archaic Future Recordings. (He and a fellow Brightonian, Bat For Lashes' Caroline Weeks, are among many fine acts playing at SPACE Gallery on July 28, a show headlined by Lou Rogai's pastoral folk group Lewis & Clarke.) Master Box continues Stillman's experimentation mixing old-time piano music with a small drum kit (which he plays simultaneously; nearly every song on Master Box was recorded in a single take) and occasional, surreal, almost nightmarish ambient passages.

"I wanted to make a 'piano' record, but was obviously pretty intimidated because it wasn't my main instrument, and also because it's a pretty unapproachable one too — more than any other instrument, because of all that tradition and technique," Stillman says. "[I]n order to get up the courage to do it I had to de-mystify it for myself, or maybe re-mystify it is a better way of putting it. ... I tried to re-understand it as this object, not only for making songs but for making sound too."

An internship in Brighton helped to actualize that goal quite literally. "Coincidentally I got this strange job apprenticing at a player piano workshop, which really got me in touch with the piano as an object, but also as this invention, a contraption." The player piano is the unmanned mechanical organ which plays songs based on a series of holes punched into a sheet of paper (through a system of wooden hammers and rubber tubes), a familiar sound from old-fashioned amusement parks and early films.

While not made on a player piano, many of the ideas in Master Box were birthed from the peculiarities of the instrument's image and construction: a disembodied performer and sounds produced without live human input. (A fascinating essay of Stillman's about the instrument, "The Mystery and Player Pianos," accompanies and enhances the release; and the album's packaging is made from player-piano paper rolls.) As the songs carry on Stillman's fondness for narrative (they're often named after people or events, such as closer "Micah Blue Smaldone," a tribute to the one-time ragtime performer), ambient experiments lurk beneath and between them, expressing unease and paranoia: "BBQ Dave 2" is a cavernous passage of drone and manipulated, hyperaccelerated keyboard playing, one of a few songs that "[zero] in on one mechanical aspect" of the recordings. They insert his nostalgic melodies into an altered sense of reality — perhaps a symbolic cloaking of the piano player. "There is a narrative there," Stillman insists, "it's just within this trance."

Christopher Gray can be reached at


  Topics: Music Features , David Bowie, Chris Gray, Jon Brion,  More more >
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 See all articles by: CHRISTOPHER GRAY

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