Sparky’s Magic Piano
In the week before Christmas, I attended the Digital Music Research Network meeting at Queen Mary, University of London. Digital Music research is not an area I’m currently involved with, but I went to the meeting at the suggestion of Dave De Roure. I’ll be spending some sabbatical time with Dave in Oxford this year and one of the things we’re going to be looking at is whether we can apply the technologies and approaches being developed in other project (in particular the Research Objects of Wf4Ever) to tasks like Music Information Retrieval. I’m also excited about this as it fits with some of my extra-curricular interests in music. The mix of the technical and artistic (in terms of both content and people) reminded me of Hypertext conferences that I went to back in ’99 and ’00.
Although some of the talks were a long way from my expertise, I found a few of particular interest. The opening keynote from Elaine Chew discussed some of the issues involved in conducting research — for example ensuring that work leads to publication (and publications that “count”), credit is given for researchers involved in the work, and that work is sustainable. This was illustrated with some fascinating video footage of experiments with a piano duo, investigating how the introduction of delay affects the interaction and interplay between performers.
Gyorgy Fazekas presented the studio ontology — a model that builds on earlier work on a Music Ontology by Yves Raimond. At first sight, the ontology seems fairly lightweight (largely asserted taxonomy), but given my own interests in Semantic Web technologies, this is clearly an area for further investigation.
The jewel in the crown, however, was Andrew McPherson‘s work on Electronic augmentation of the acoustic grand piano. The magnetic resonator piano uses electromagnets to induce string vibrations. For those of you familiar with the EBow, used by guitarists including Bill Nelson and Robert Fripp, it’s like a piano with 88 EBows bolted on to it. A keyboard sensor (I believe using a Moog Piano Bar) captures data from the keys and drives the system. The whole thing requires no alteration to the instrument, and can be set up in a few hours. It’s an electronic instrument, but all the sound is produced using the physical soundboard and strings of the instrument itself (i.e. no amplifier/speakers).
The overall effect is a little like an organ, with infinite sustain of notes, but many more subtle effects can be obtained including string “bending” and the introduction of additional harmonic tones. Andrew gave a demonstration of the instrument over lunch. One regret I have is that performance anxiety kicked in here (I’m a fairly rudimentary pianist) and I didn’t rush forward to have a go when he offered it to the floor! And I hadn’t brought a camera. Videos on Andrew’s site show the instrument in action.
One aspect here is the use of various gestures. Electronic keyboards have facilities like aftertouch, allowing the player to add additional pressure to the keys to control the additional tones/effects. This is possible here, with other gestures such as sliding the fingers along or up and down the keys being used to “play” the instrument. In the talk, Andrew described some additional work he was doing on providing enhanced keyboard controllers to support these additional gestures. The piano keyboard is a ubiquitous controller/interface to a musical instrument — it will be interesting to see how these additional gestures and controls fit in with players’ established practices, and which gestures are “right” for which effects.
Of course, the obvious question that we then all asked was what other instruments one could apply this approach to. Answers on a postcard……