Reconsidering the Relationship Between Performer and Piano

When was the last time you wondered about the consequence of an everyday action such as dropping a glass of water or pressing a piano key? Will the glass shatter when it hits the floor? Will the depressed key sound harmonious? As we learn and grow, we become less enchanted by the results of our routine actions. In music, this predictability between an action and its resulting sound has allowed composers to notate music with a clear idea of how it will sound before it's even performed.

Composer and artist Dan Trueman is developing this element of surprise by altering the sounds and behaviors we've learned to associate with the standard piano. Building upon "prepared piano" techniques developed by composer John Cage in the 1950s (in which screws and and other objects are inserted into the instrument), Trueman has developed a program that expands upon Cage's techniques with “ digital preparations”. This computer software, called “bitKlavier”, modifies the piano's sound electronically, introducing unconventional behaviors to be explored by the pianist.

After releasing an album using this instrument*, Trueman made “bitKlavier” available for the benefit of musicians interested in performing his music and also for composers interested in developing new compositions. It is currently being improved to make it more accessible for multiple platforms.

Let's take a look at how “bitKlavier” works by reviewing its three basic "digital preparation" techniques:

  1. “Nostalgic” (i.e. reversed audio)

    The “Nostalgic” preparation reverses the sound of a pitch after it has been played resulting in an echo effect.

    Fig 1. The above is a graphic representation of a piano note that repeats backwards after being heard forward.

    In traditional piano performance, a hammer hits a string when a key is depressed. The moment a key is released is not important. However, when performing with the "nostalgic" preparation, the performer must have an awareness of when each key is released. This is because the backwards sound begins at the moment of release. Shown above in Fig. 1 the moment of release is located in the exact middle of the two audio waveforms.

  2. “Synchronic” (i.e. resettable metronomes)

    The “Synchronic” preparation uses digital metronomes to repeat a note. It can start, reset, and stop a repeating note at any time, creating a stutter effect.

    Fig 2. The above is a graphic representation of a piano note repeated by a digital metronome.

    The “synchronic” preparation requires that the performer have a precise sense of timing in order to reset each digital metronome.  Additionally, the performer must learn how to start and stop repeating notes. Shown above in Fig. 2 a note is repeated four times controlled by a digital metronome.

  3. "Tuning"

    The traditional piano is tuned using “equal temperament” in which the octave is divided equally into twelve parts. However, “bitKlavier” allows the performer to modify the tuning of each note. This opens up a new realm of possibilities in which the performer can make use of imaginary pitches between the piano keys.

So what does “bitKlavier” sound like? Let's watch a video of Dan Trueman's "Etude No. 1" from the album “Nostalgic Synchronic” * (released in 2015 on New Amsterdam records and performed Adam Sliwinski of So Percussion).

Since the release of “Nostalgic Synchronic”, numerous performers and composers have used "bitKlavier" both to perform Trueman's compositions and to write new ones. Although it is based on relatively simple principles, “bitKlavier” can be rather complex: each of the three digital preparations has numerous customizable parameters, requiring large quantities of data to be stored and recalled. Additionally, "bitKlavier" allows for multiple customized preparations to be used within a single composition.  For example, a pianist might start with a “Nostalgic” preparation and later switch to a “Synchronic” preparation, while simultaneously modifying the piano's tuning throughout the piece. The data necessary for these operations must be stored in such a way as to be saved and shared with others.

Together with musician and programmer Mike Mulshine, Trueman rewrote “bitKlavier”s code with the goal of making it more translatable and efficient. The original version of "bitKlavier" was created with a cumbersome combination of two programming languages (called “Max” and “Chuck”) and was hindered by many limitations. However, rewriting "bitKalvier" in a programming language called C++ has already allowed for additional flexibility, revealed issues in the original code, and has led to improvements upon the data organization on the original version. By implementing C++ (along with the framework “Juce”) “bitKlavier” is now accessible on various platforms such as iPhones, iPads, androids, and laptops.

Fig. 3 Rebuilding the code from scratch in C++

The last stage in "bitKlavier's" development is to design a new user interface. This new look is much more than a cosmetic consideration. It includes all the parameters and options available while remaining accessible to a wide range of musicians with different backgrounds. Both pianists using "bitKlavier" to perform a composition and forward-thinking composers interested in creating their own presets will need to be comfortable navigating this program.

Fig 4. The image above shows the first steps in redesigning bitKlavier's user interface.

Both playful and original, there is a great potential for this exciting new digital instrument in today's contemporary music world, a world in which performers and composers are continually looking for surprising ways to reimagine the piano.

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