Music

Stephan Moccio: piano solos with a pop persuasion

The LA composer creates a new sound with innovative piano 'preparation'

Stephan Moccio

Stephan Moccio Photo: PR supplied

The piano’s insides were on display, just like the composer’s.

The casing on the back of the upright had been removed so that the hammers were clearly visible. It gave the impression of work in progress; that we had stumbled into a maker’s workshop in the midst of a restoration project. In fact, contrary to appearances, the instrument was exactly how pianist-composer Stephan Moccio wanted it. The felt wedged deep into the piano’s interior muffled the sound, making the usually resonant middle register distant and vague.

The piano’s full name – pianoforte – translates from Italian as ‘soft-loud’ and alludes to the impressive new qualities of Cristofori’s 18th-century invention, which took over from the less technically powerful fortepiano. Moccio’s music emphasises the ‘piano’ in pianoforte – with a focus on beautiful, heartfelt melodies, often still and peaceful. 

The LA-based pianist-composer has been waiting several years to play his recent London showcase. His latest albums have existed primarily in the digital world, where they have been repeatedly played (his solo music has been streamed over 500 million times).

When I spoke to Moccio over Zoom before his UK visit, he explained that he had spent many months holed up in his studio with his beloved Yamaha, which has been adapted to create that softer tone. It suits the gentle tunes heard in Tales of Solace and Lionheart, revealing collections inspired by the sadness felt by the breakdown of Moccio’s 31-year marriage and subsequent personal development. 

Moccio is not the first pianist to ‘prepare’ the piano in this way – composers have been tinkering under the bonnet of their instruments for decades. John Cage notably experimented with timbre in the avant garde music of the 1950s, and more recently Nils Frahm explored this sound world in Felt (2011). 

Moccio pays homage to post-classical pianists like Frahm and Dustin O’Halloran, but his style owes more to pop – that’s unsurprising, as the composer is one of the creatives behind some big chart toppers, including A New Day Has Come for Céline Dion and Earned It, recorded by The Weeknd for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack.

He’s also one of the co-writers of Wrecking Ball, immortalised by Miley Cyrus. I’m not generally a fan of pop songs transcribed for piano, but this version feels just right – probably because it’s not really an arrangement, more a return to its original form. 

This particular genre of solo piano music has boomed over the past years. In some ways the reasons for this are obvious: we have spent more time home alone, and our streaming choices have moved towards music that comforts and supports.

Pianists who straddle pop and classical – like K-Pop songwriter Yiruma – have benefited from the growth in ‘piano for reading’ and similarly styled playlists available through improved digital platforms. The genre is explored in BBC Radio 3’s new show Piano Flow, presented by Tokio Myers, 2017 winner of Britain’s Got Talent. Myers impressed audiences and judges with his performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which gradually morphed into Bloodstream by Ed Sheeran. 

Piano Flow takes this concept further, mixing acoustic pop tracks with post-classical/pop-classical piano pieces – and music that is more familiar to BBC Radio 3, such as Liszt’s Liebestraum No 3, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Satie’s Gymnopédies

London-born Myers, who in 1995 aged just 11 witnessed the fatal stabbing of his headmaster Philip Lawrence, went on to study at the Royal College of Music, nurturing his omnivorous tastes. Piano Flow (available on BBC Sounds) feels like the offspring of Radio 1 and Classic FM – a strange-but-enjoyable shuffle.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor. claire-jackson.co.uk
@claireiswriting

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