Ben Cosgrove‘s The Trouble With Wilderness is a beautiful, incredible exposition of a distinct compositional viewpoint. Solo piano work is an incredibly difficult space to establish a unique voice in, but Cosgrove pulls it off in spades here. Anyone who loves piano should run to listen to this record.
Cosgrove makes speedy work sound peaceful, which is a surprising, lovely approach. The trick to it is making fast things seem slow and slow things seem fast. Opener “The Machine in the Garden” feels like a slow-paced piece due to underlying long bass notes, but Cosgrove is doing quite a lot of work on the keys. At the very least, the ambient piano-motion sounds make it seem that way. Over the bass notes and ambient sounds, elegant melodies that dance between slow and fast make their way subtly across a lovely plane.
“Overpass” is another one that makes swift piano playing seem gentle and calm; the delicate delivery makes the speed of the work sound like a gently burbling stream instead of a furious piano attack. Cosgrove knows how to work in this space: there’s a perfect amount of restraint and release in the ebb and flow of the melodies. The melodic payoffs throughout are deeply satisfying.
“Oklahoma Wind Speed Measurement Club” is a sibling to “Overpass,” but the effect is of gently blowing wind instead of water. The evocation of wind is partly due to the brilliant title, partly due to the tones and key chosen, partly due to more prominent bass notes in the foreground. Once again: fast work that sounds calm and expansive. “Arterial #1” is a chipper, sprightly, treble-heavy piece that yet feels meditative. The high notes cascade quickly, but the underlying long notes evoke peaceful thoughts. But even though it is peaceful, there’s still a lot of activity to be interested in: the balance of peace and motion is a unique, pleasant tension.
It’s not all quietude. The standout track is “This Rush of Beauty and This Sense of Order,” which races along so enthusiastically that Cosgrove starts stomping his feet and even yells at the high point of the song. You know a piece is good when the performer just can’t contain glee at playing it. It’s an evocative, exciting work full of big chords and staccato bursts that would be absolutely dynamite live.
Some works break the mold further. “Cairn” splits the difference between this frenetic glee of “Rush of Beauty” and the uniquely meditative works I mentioned earlier. It couches the same joyful resolutions of “Rush” in the unique space fast/quiet space that Cosgrove has developed. The album closes with “Templates for Limitless Fields of Grass,” which is a 10+ minute saga that rolls through many different moods, from the torrential to the pensive. It is highly dramatic throughout; it is fulfilling in a different type of way than the rest of the album.
The Trouble With Wilderness is a deeply impressive album; I have listened to it many times in the course of reviewing it, and I am not nearly done exploring it yet. It is emotionally and intellectually satisfying in a space where it is hard to do either thing, due to the high level of mastery required to break through the sea of pianists. Cosgrove has a rare talent. Wilderness will definitely be on my top-ten best of the year. Highly recommended.