Friday, April 3, 2015

The Habits That Create Knowledge Part 2: The Prepared Digital Piano

The Prepared Digital Piano

For the last 8 months, I haven’t written anything new in this space because I’ve been working on a wonderful project: a new volume in the Cambridge University “Companion” series about percussion. Russell Hartenberger is the editor, and I was honored to contribute the chapter about percussion chamber music. It is titled “Lost and Found: Percussion Chamber Music and the Modern Age.” This was my first high-profile writing project in print, and I must say I’d grown used to the conditional nature of a blog…any second thoughts or changes, just hit the “update” button! Trying to address 100 years of history and articulate how my work fits into it was a great challenge.

Now that I’ve turned in my final draft, I want to address the issue that my last big blog article dealt with: practice. As that essay mused, my interest is not as much in how to practice your instrument as it is in the conceptual framework of what it means to have a practice. What do you practice, and why? How do those choices affect the body of work that you produce? Most importantly – to me—how does a musician’s actual performance practice affect compositional practice?

My just-finished writing project for Cambridge emphasized percussion not as a specific and separate category of practice, but as a new model of flexibility and curation. Underneath that umbrella are many micro practices as well, each with their own norms and similarities to other instruments.

Within each of those micro specialities, a percussionist learns how to rank or gauge himself within the field. For instance, I’d consider myself on the higher end of solo marimba capability, on the highest end of contemporary chamber music, and at a high level of orchestra capability (though not elite). On the other hand, my drumset playing is at a basic fundamental level, my steel drum playing is completely non-existent, and I’d be kicked out of an afro-cuban band on congas by the end of the first bar. You might say that nobody is good at everything, but it's quite surprising how much percussionists are expected to be able to do.

One of the instruments I’ve always loved is the piano. I’ve played since I was a kid, and even did pretty well in a competition in high school. But compared to the crowded world of ultra-elite pianists, I do not have the technical capabilities or breadth of repertoire of the best players. My wife Cristina is this level of player, and some of her close friends are top pianists like Ingrid Fliter and Vanessa Perez. I’m surrounded by them quite a bit, which I love.

For a long time, piano has been a fun extension of my percussion practice. Within this category, everything seemed to fit just fine. In college, I was the go-to pianist in the percussion group, sometimes even missing out on good drum parts. When So Percussion initiated our John Cage project in 2012, it only made sense that I’d tackle Credo in US, First Construction, and others part for piano within the percussion ensemble.

I would never play Bach or Chopin on piano in a professional context, so why was I comfortable tackling Cage? Well, it wasn’t really the instrument – the tool or organum - that defined my expertise and the limits of my practice. Viewed objectively, the piano can be considered a perfectly normal percussion/string hybrid instrument. It was the style and aesthetic purposes of the music that offered me a place to explore. I had never felt self-conscious about sitting at the keyboard anytime I was surrounded by drums. Those drums signified that I was in a comfort zone, an ecosystem that I understood and was identified with externally.

A few years ago, Dan Trueman showed me some experiments with a new software for a “prepared digital piano,” where an 88-key digital piano feeds into a laptop via USB. The concept was obviously an homage to Cage, but his inventive preparations were only possible with the latest dynamic technology. I was astounded by what it could do, and also tantalized by how the first few pieces were shaping up. For some reason, I was gripped by the conviction that I could play this music.

Actually, that reason was not hard to identify: I was not primarily motivated by a vision of myself as a pianist, but by my deep understanding of Dan’s work and of what he was trying to accomplish. So Percussion had just released the recording of a 5-year project with Dan entitled “neither Anvil nor Pulley,” a kind of sprawling magnum opus that defined Dan’s work up to that point (video below).


nAnP doubled down on two major strands of Dan’s work: folk influenced fiddle music and newly created software instruments. In 120bpm, the second movement, contact microphones attached to woodblocks constantly trigger and reset metronomes. The outer movements are quirkily orchestrated fiddle tunes, standing in stark relief to the mechanized chaos of the larger inner movements.

Dan called his piano etudes "Nostalgic Synchronic," after the primary effects of the preparations.  "Nostalgic" refers to the ability that the computer has to play back notes right after the pianist plays them, reaching back in time to the initial attack.  "Synchronic" refers to the many ways in which pulse and rhythm can be manipulated and multiplied after the pianist plays a note.  Within his program there are also endless possibilities for alternate tunings, sometimes changing within only one piece.

The first bar of etude #1 announces itself with exactly the same kind of metric ricochet that I had mastered in 120bpm. I understood immediately how he had transferred this idea over to the digital piano…actually I should say I understood why he had done it. To this day I have no idea how he did any of this. Our video of the Prelude from I Care If You Listen is below:

I begged him to let me download the instrument to my laptop and tackle this first piece. To Dan’s credit, I’m not sure he’d ever heard me play piano before, but he said “sure.” I discovered quickly that many of the compositional ideas he was exploring fit my playing like a glove. Actually, I took pride in the fact that the tricky aspects of rhythmic timing were second nature. I’m sure most classical pianists have never had their own sound fired back to them in rapid, precise metric quanta, which they then needed to play off of, but I had.

Just as quickly, I ran into a problem that in my breathless enthusiasm I hadn’t really stopped to consider yet: I’m just an ok pianist. The many years that I’d spent in the conservatory progression of acquiring percussion skill only translated up to a point with this instrument. I hadn’t had to sit down and slowly solve a knotty technical playing problem in about ten years. My brain knew exactly how this music should go, but my fingers pushed back.

At this point I experienced my first (though certainly not my last) dip in confidence. I was still having fun, but was I doing service to Dan’s vision? Should I continue to pursue the project, premiere subsequent pieces, record them? Or should I do my part to get them in the hands of a real pianist – a poisonous thought that I’ve since banished from my mind. Dan was extremely encouraging, as I think he sensed that a performer’s enthusiasm for a composer’s work goes a very long way in bringing it to life.

I knew that I had one card up my sleeve. My wife is a dazzling pianist who studied for years at the elite Academia Pianistica Imola in Italy, first privately and then on a Fulbright fellowship. I’ve included a video below of her playing Carl Vine’s “Sonata #2” to give you a sense of her skill. She is also an experienced teacher, so I knew that she could help me when I bumped into my own inevitable limitations.

All of a sudden, I felt like a 16 year old student again, plodding carefully through exercises while my technique slowly improved. Her initial diagnosis, along with a few lessons in posture, muscle efficiency, and finger position, was simple: “you need Bach.”

Who doesn’t? But, since I told her I wanted the real deal, no sugar-coating, she turned to the D-major prelude from book one of the Well Tempered Claviers. “I played this forte and slowly every day for 3 months. That should get you going.”

What was I getting myself into…

With a punishing touring schedule, increased teaching responsibilities, a family to think about, why would I start up this whole new phase in my practice? As it turns out, the major advantage 33-year-old me had over 16-year-old me was experience. I could see my slow fingers improving only incrementally, but I knew exactly why she had me doing that prelude, and I had a general sense of how long it would take for that skill to improve.

I knew that it would seem to stagnate for awhile, then I could leave it alone and go on to something else, and when I came back it would magically have leaped forward. I knew that if I stayed relaxed and played slowly with a big sound, my muscles would learn the deep relationships of the key spacing and be reminded of the sound I was always looking for. I felt in my mind that my obstacles were just piles of junk in front of me that I could see clearly over. A young student has to trust their teacher blindly about these things, but I saw how it would play out if I persevered.

Many times, when she corrected me or instructed me on aspects of technique, I’d realize how similar her piano technique was to the way I teach percussion: the largest and smallest muscle groups work together as a unit in the most efficient way possible, never isolating themselves, but rather transferring energy one to another when the music demanded. Torso, shoulder, and arms worked together to provide sound, wrists fed energy to fingers to make their work lighter.

The idea of technical problems as inconvenience rather than impassable barrier was exhilarating. Many times, I’d find that I was projecting into my body certain ideas I had about what it meant to be a pianist, only to have Cristina show me that the solutions were much closer to my familiar percussion practice than I had ever imagined. Gradually my technique improved. Spurred partially by my investment in the project, Dan churned out 8 fascinating, wildly inventive etudes. With each one, a similar process played out. Dan’s musical conceit was familiar, but I had to work to extend my technique in order to play each piece.

But this is when I started to drop my hang ups about being a real pianist…this process is what etudes are supposed to be for! I just happen to be able to develop my skills in varying tuning systems, with digital metronomes hounding me and the occasional need to wait for a reverse playback note to catch up before moving on. After my initial interest in this work, Dan started writing more and more etudes, constantly upping the ante on inventiveness and challenge.  Some of the pieces, like the 4th etude entitled Marbles, work my fingers to their last.  Others, like the 7th etude Systerslått, test my musical skills with mirrored asymmetrical underlying metronomes or slowly enveloping reversed chords. Dan is very generous to credit my involvement as spurring him to work harder and harder at developing this instrument, all the while keeping in mind my willingness to tackle the strangest and most thrilling challenges in the music.

I’ve since premiered and recorded these pieces, which Dan and I are releasing in fall of 2015 on New Amsterdam Records. It feels strange to me that my first solo record will be as a pianist. I have all my degrees in percussion performance, but my thinking has expanded to imagine that a practice is not only about an instrument. It is about the context of style and the particular demands of the work that you want to do.

In this sense, my conflict about daring to be a pianist was not the piano’s fault – it just sits there. It was my lingering awe at the tradition that the instrument and its forbears represent. I was aware that I’d never have enough time left in my life to play the Chopin etudes or a Beethoven sonata at a world class level. But the piano is not just about that music, it is a tool. Furthermore, Dan’s digital piano was a related offspring of the piano, the same way that the fortepiano was from the harpsichord. Why could I not use that tool to say something new?

For more information about the Nostalgic Synchronic Etudes and the Prepared Digital Piano:

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