Strictly speaking, VERVE is not SEBASTIAN PLANO's third album. PLANO's third album has no title, and only one copy exists. In fact, it may not even exist any longer. Whether or not it does, however, it's unlikely that the person who owns it actually knows they have it. On April 19, 2013, outside the San Francisco recording studio where, that evening, PLANO had completed recording the Novel EP his collaboration with acclaimed cellist (and former Kronos Quartet member) Jeffrey Ziegler his computer, and, with it, two hard drives, were stolen from his car. Also stored on the drives was PLANO's recently finished third album. Despite papering nearby streets over the coming weeks with some 500 posters offering a $5,000 reward, the drives were never returned. It was like the record had never existed.
VERVE is therefore SEBASTIAN PLANO's third album. Initially conceived as a reconstruction of its mythical predecessor, it evolved, over several years, into something else entirely: a reaction to its content, and its loss. In such circumstances, it's perhaps not entirely surprising it sounds the way it does. On one hand, its presence can be deeply sensed, yet it feels distinctly otherworldly, and though it boasts a profound, admirable weight, its instrumental compositions are delicate, full of light and air. From 'Abeyance''s placid, almost subaqueous introduction, to the end of the bittersweet 'Extrema', via the title track's slowly swelling conviction, the brittle beauty of 'Dancing Waters', and the expansive optimism of 'Purples', it blurs the lines between analogue and digital. Paying no mind to anything but the purity of its expression, it exists in its own dimension, its melancholy swathed in hope, a filigree of gently stroked strings, rippling piano lines and eloquent electronica.
That VERVE sounds so exquisite and yet self-assured is perhaps not surprising given PLANO's background and the determination he's shown to follow his muse since his youth. Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1985, he was raised by parents who spent the last forty years performing in the city's symphony orchestra: his father, like his sister, plays violin, while his mother plays viola. His grandfather, too, was a musician, a bandoneon maestro who led a popular local tango band, though he also made city maps which his father sold to make ends meet. PLANO, who began playing the cello at the age of seven, was already writing his own music by the time he was 11, and though he occasionally lost interest during the intervening years, his passion was reawaken as he entered his teens. I went to see Haydn's Cello Concerto No.1 in C performed by my Mum and Dad's orchestra, he says. Something happened to me during the second movement. I remember the concert ending, and I said, I want to play that concerto'. The next morning, I got the score and started practising.
It wasn't long before a 13-year-old PLANO found himself a soloist on the same stage, performing not only Haydn's Cello Concerto but also Faure?'s Elegie. His parents scraped money together so he could study with the country's finest teacher Claudio Baraviera, and, for the next three years, he travelled to Buenos Aires and back an eight-hour round trip twice a month for an hour-long lesson. But though he would go on to receive full scholarships from some of the world's most prestigious institutes first the United World College of the Adriatic, outside Trieste, Italy, followed by the Boston Conservatory and, finally, the San Francisco Conservatory PLANO's interests were never restricted to classical music. As a child, he would watch Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and, noticing how bewitched he was by Vangelis' soundtrack, his father acquiesced on his eighth birthday to his request for similar music, presenting him with a cassette of Vangelis' Themes.
This collection opened up a whole new, electronic world, and, as he began commuting to his nation's capital, he also started toying with music software. At first, though he enjoyed 'remixing' Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells in his bedroom after school, his experiments were largely limited to scholarly endeavours: his own formally composed pieces, printed out using a score-writing programme, Sibelius, before his family gathered the next day to rehearse them. But, as he continued to develop skills as a contemporary composer with some success, it might be added, not least the premiere of a four movement orchestral piece at Rosario's Opera House in 2008, when he was still in his mid 20s he also immersed himself increasingly in more radical musical pursuits.
I never stopped experimenting with electronic music, he says. To begin with, I'd watch a film and hear the soundtrack, then go back to my room and make pieces that sounded like it. Then I began playing around with all sorts of styles. I didn't have any goal, apart from the fun of making it. It was a hobby, or self-exploration. But every year I would give a collection of the best pieces to my friends.
These were the most authentic, the ones that spoke most to me, where I wasn't trying to be someone or something else.
PLANO's first album, 2011's Arrhythmical Part Of Hearts, drew heavily on the most recent of such pieces, and coincided with his realisation that classical music alone no longer fulfilled him artistically. By the end of my master's degree, he elaborates, I was able to play concerts with teachers, and work in the highest ranges of the classical field. But I started noticing I wasn't enjoying playing on stage. One night I had two pieces in the programme, and in the intermission, I went downstairs to the basement and lay down on a sofa. I stared up at the ceiling going, 'This is it. I'm done. I don't want to keep going down this road for the rest of my life.'
That first album, self-released while he lived in San Francisco, provoked PLANO to share his own electronically influenced instrumental music any way he could. I ordered a thousand CDs, he laughs, and one day I open my room and there's no space even to breathe. I'm like, 'What the hell am I going to do?' It was all completely new to me: no PR, no label, no booking agent, no nothing! So I started playing on the metro and selling my CDs, and soon I would play almost anywhere: house parties, art galleries, the park! I'd carry CDs with me all the time: 'Hey, do you want this? Pay whatever you want, just take it away from me!' PLANO also ran his own small PR campaign, and after a British blog ended up reviewing the record, he was contacted by German label Denovali, who wanted to release a follow-up. This idea might have been forgotten had PLANO not reached out to Nils Frahm some months later, as he completed work on his second record Impetus, asking him to master it. Frahm not only admired his music enough to say yes to the unknown composer, but he also recommended Denovali. The label released Impetus in 2013, simultaneously reissuing his debut.
By then, PLANO was lost in trying to recapture the magic of what should have been their follow-up. Crushed by its disappearance, he'd relocated to Berlin little more than three months later, inspired by the week he'd spent in the city as Frahm worked on Impetus. He was drawn not only by his desire, after eight years in the US, to experience life in Europe again, but also by the fact that the city was home to a growing number of like-minded musical souls, with whom he was soon circulating. Work began with attempts to rescue his Novel EP, sourcing the cello performances from filmed recordings and recreating the electronic accompaniments from scratch. But, though two out of four tracks were successfully recovered, the process fuelled by an increasing mixture of sadness, hate and frustration exhausted him. Nonetheless, by the end of 2015, VERVE had also been recreated to the best of his ability and recollection, anyway. Still, he concedes, something didn't fulfil me, something I couldn't live with. It didn't give me that level of excitement that you should get from a record you've just finished. It felt old. So I threw everything away.
It was a courageous but canny decision. Soon he was spending every night until dawn in his Berlin apartment playing, almost silently, his beloved electric Yamaha CP80 piano, which he'd shipped from San Francisco. I attacked the fear, he recalls, and the things that weren't allowing me to work. Out of these marathon sessions, pieces began to emerge, including 'Dancing Waters' and 'Honesty'. So I took the summer of 2016 to make a whole new record, he laughs, in a burst of, 'Fuck everything! Let me just do music! Let's forget everything that's in the past! Improvising by night, and editing by day, PLANO crafted the most ambitious record of his career: VERVE's individual tracks, with their slowly unfurling melodies and sprawling, dreamlike atmospheres, are less conventionally structured than before, and yet, with its repeated themes and production quirks plus PLANO's conscious acknowledgement of his classical training the album as a whole is his most intricately constructed, and possessed of a bolder narrative too. It was composed, produced and performed entirely by PLANO, who confesses that, even if I write something for an instrument, I have to play it. Music isn't just about sound. It's about the tone of the voice as well.
To make VERVE, PLANO had to reach an acceptance that an album isn't always just a collection of music: it's a document of performances. Though he could still hear the original recordings in his head, he was slowly forced to recognise, as he battled to regain their precious lustre, that he was trying to achieve the impossible. What then emerged was even better: a record that's here and yet, somehow, not here at all. Its genesis was lengthy, and its birth laborious, but VERVE delivers what its title promises: spirit and vigour in beguiling measures, delivered by a unique voice. Strictly speaking, it's his finest work to date. - Worlds by Wyndham Wallace.