Friday, March 14, 2008

Piano and electronics

One of the advantages of living in a university community (at least when the university has a good music school) is the occasional concert that would be deemed insufficiently attractive for commercial establishments outside of the largest metropolitan areas.  Such was a concert last night of Soundscapes: New music for piano & live electronics by University of Arizona piano faculty member Michael Dauphinais and visiting composer and sound designer Stephan Moore.  Their program consisted of two world premieres, separated by a brief intermission to change around the electronics setup, and it displayed two completely different sides of a wide spectrum of possibilities for the piano and computer. Moore and Dauphinais also gave a lecture and demonstration earlier in the day that was more geared toward the dance students (Moore's current day job is Sound Supervisor and Music Coordinator for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company), but was as fascinating as the concert was later in the evening.

The first piece on the program was Moore's recent composition Moving Target, a relatively straightforward piece using piano as input to multiple digital delays.  The pattern was fairly slow, and the pianist started playing solo with a bit of rubato.  After a few repetitions of the pattern, he started the processing on the computer, which gradually started playing in sync with the pianist.  The processing required no additional intervention, but changed programmatically during the piece, creating at different times clouds of sound, cascading runs of notes, or chords which phased in and out with the live piano.  Some of the more unusual effects involved detuning the echoed notes, which made the piano sound more like a gamelan.  The basic rhythm stayed fairly constant, but near the end the pace quickened a bit and got more melodic, almost sounding like Steve Reich at a couple of points.  The pianist played with a click track, and during the lecture he said that his dog could play the piano part, but the difficulty was staying in sync with the click track — one false step and the whole edifice would come to a chaotic mess.  Needless to say, that didn't happen in the performance, and Moving Target was an excellent piece in the minimalist vein. 

The second half of the program was a long suite (twenty-three pieces) by composer and blues guitarist John King, 23 Rubai'yat. Some of the pieces have been performed before, but this was the world premiere of the suite as a whole. The contrast with Moving Target could not have been more pronounced.  The piano writing was highly virtuosic, much more complex, and the processing was sophisticated and varying, requiring Moore to play live electronics during the piece.  The piano music reminded me of Frederic Rzewski, with brash modernist gestures, fast repeated note passages, loud and forceful writing covering the entire keyboard. Several of the pieces were call-and-response duets between the solo piano and the electronics, where the piano would drop out and leave some kind of bizarre resonance from the computer.  Repeated note passages would spawn shimmering, dizzying accompaniments.  A rubai is a kind of poetry in A-A-B-A form, which perhaps coincidentally is a blues form, and some of the piano pieces definitely showed the family resemblance. One in particular was a completely over the top blues piano piece, with the processing making it sound like an unearthly orchestra.  King used every trick in the book, including glissandi, the sostenuto pedal, trills at opposite ends of the keyboard, and no doubt a couple of new ones as well.  Although a few of the pieces were slow and reflective, for the most part the intensity didn't let up for the duration of the set.  Dauphinais' performance was complete bravura, very impressive. 

I wasn't sure what to expect from this concert, as there aren't a lot of recordings for piano and electronics.  There are a fair number for piano and tape, but the electronics part in these pieces is static.  David Tudor has a famous recording of Cage's Variations II, and Stockhausen's Mantra uses ring modulators to modify the sounds of two pianos.  But most avant-garde piano artists use extended techniques, perhaps with amplification for the small, inside piano sounds, but not the kind of processing I heard last night.  Perhaps the closest is Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, where half of the group plays acoustic instruments and the other half of the group processes the sounds.  During King's piece, although Moore wasn't breaking a sweat the way Dauphinais did, there was definitely eye contact and coordination between the two musicians.  I had an opportunity to see the score after the lecture, and the electronics score was the piano score with additional cues on which Max/MSP patch to use, often several cues per piece.  Moore has done some sound design for King, so it's entirely possible that he wrote some of the patches, but I didn't get the impression (from viewing the score) that he was creating or modifying any circuits in real time.  My expectations were probably set by more improvisational artists, such as Günter Müller and Marcus Schmickler. In any case, the concert was fascinating and inspirational, and I hope to pursue similar directions in my own music in the near and distant future. 


Anonymous said...

I was very glad to see your blog post. Very thoughtful reactions and writing.

For the record, Stephan's position with MCDC is not Music Director; he is the Sound Supervisor and Music Coordinator. Takhisa Kosugi is the current Music Director.

-Michael Dauphinais

Caleb Deupree said...

My apologies, thanks for the correction.

Jim Perkins said...

Hi Caleb,

If you're interested in more works for piano and electronics please check out this link:
I think there is a growing interest in working in this medium and quite a few composers seem to be working in this way using Max MSP.

All the best