This is a concert hall, is it not? And you are an audience. I am a performer. Is this not a piano? But what is this object, this funereal black box on wheels, this three legged animal with black and white teeth, this resonant heap of steel, wood and history – arrogant container of all western dreams, this thing that Paik has brutalized, Annea Lockwood has burned, Cage has prepared, LaMonte Young has tuned, Palestine bled on, and Fats Waller has played without much ado about anything – as I will do this evening.
The only recollection of my first piano lesson at the age of five years was that the lesson itself was preceded by a family Sunday meal in a Chinese restaurant in Providence, that my teacher Mrs. Einstein transformed my hands into bridges so that my thumbs could pass under them, and that I learned a monophonic piece with the word “Indians” in the title. The only reason for all of this, my parents assured me, was because “You have to.” (Little did they imagine what this would lead to.) Meanwhile, Mrs. Einstein despaired of my mindless renditions of Clementi and tried to convince my parents that I would be much happier studying the trombone – which I had taught myself to play anyway. But my parents wouldn’t hear of it – “All music comes from the piano, it’s your basic foundation,” my father would say. And he was a trombone player. To make things worse my older brother had already arrived at successfully playing the Schubert Impromptus.
So there were recitals where rows of terror-stricken children waited endlessly for the moment when their minuet or largo would appear magically intact from the tips of their fingers. There was a promotion to lessons with Mr. Einstein and Mozart. There were the secretly discovered ninth chords followed shortly by augmented elevenths, thirteenths, jazz. Then came playing the piano in my father’s dance bands, the revelation of making piano music based on “nothing,” finally there was the “Rhapsody in Blue.” There was hearing Myra Hess, Artur Rubinstein, Serkin, Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, Cecil Taylor; hearing Elliott Carter tell of his lessons with Ives; there were “Structures” and the “Klavierstücke,” Cardew and Rzewski, Cage and Feldman, Ellis Larkins and Duke Ellington, Teitelbaum and Clarence Barlow. There was Chiari, there was Scelsi.
So, is it any wonder that I ask myself: is there any music still to be made for this instrument – the pianoforte? For that matter one could ask: is there any music left to be composed or improvised at all? The answer is, “Yes, of course there is – my music still has to be made,” and that is the reason why I am sitting at this piano now. (My parents still can’t quite believe it.)
Just before my father died, I wanted him to hear a section of my “Canti Illuminati” in which I had included his own voice singing a beautiful Yiddish song. He listened patiently as a dying man would, and when the music stopped he said: “Where’s the melody, this music needs more melody.” So this evening there will be melody and harmony too.
Robert Moog is one of the most affable electronics geniuses around.
At the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz last year I asked him about new devices
for transforming the sound of an acoustic piano. First he said: “Forget
it.” Then: “Wait a minute, there’s this new thing from Forte
Music in San Jose.” I patiently investigated and decided this was exactly
what I was looking for.
The Forte Midi Mod (as it is called) is nothing but a long strip of circuit board and special switches which is installed directly under the keys of any acoustic piano. The output of this device can then be connected to any number of Midi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) equipped instruments (synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, computers, etc.), allowing the player to “play” all of these other machines directly from the piano keyboard. It is the ideal device for those pianists who want to be “with it” and still play the piano – to have that unmatchable feel of a concert grand and produce the latest algorithmic sounds at the same time. Though the Forte Midi Mod has now brought the pianoforte permanently into the digital age and will, no doubt, prove itself very cost-effective in the commercial and pop music worlds, it is unlikely that its use will give rise to any new musical trends there. For me, on the other hand, as a pseudo-electronic musician who still thinks of getting music out of the Eiffel Toward through contact microphones, this elegant piece of modern electronics suggests nay number of interesting and “unorthodox” uses. It is, therefore, the key to the realization of my basic premise in the Electric Rags: to transform the sound of an acoustic piano into multiple streams of tonal colors without changing the sound of the piano itself.
At my suggestion, and with the cooperation of Dr. Becker and Herr Mullermann of the WDR, it was agreed to install one of these Forte Midi Mods permanently in one of their pianos – the very first installation of its kind in Europe. As this device represents the first potential major innovation in pianoforte technology in nearly 200 years, I am especially pleased to be the one to introduce it in Köln on this occasion.
Grand Piano is the generic title I have given to an unordered array of composed and improvised piano music that I have been making for many years. It’s like a little private mine into which I descend occasionally to dig: once in a while I strike a new vein and this becomes a new part of Grand Piano. The meeting with Moog, the Forte Midi Mod, etc., are all part of a recent find leading to the creation of the Electric Rags, in which 2 DX 7 synthesizers, 1 Prophet 600, and 1 Serge Modular synthesizer are all interconnected and piloted directly from the piano. In addition I employ 8 tracks of recorded sound and a few digital time and pitch changing machines. The structure of the piece is largely determined by the spontaneous interplay between my improvisation and the numerous predictable and unpredictable events produced by the system itself. My own keyboard improvisation is, however, based on rather unconventional criteria: I try to refrain from “looking for” the music but let the music seek me. If we should meet, we try not to think about where we are going or where we have come from. But since this is nearly impossible to do, contradictions of all kinds are constantly generated – contradictions like finding yourself driving down the wrong way down a one way street, or like being stuck in a massive traffic jam, or like being totally lost and then finding your way back to the warmth and serenity of a familiar place. The music vacillates between the known and unknown, the easy and the impossible, the safe and the foolish. It becomes accustomed to living in perpetual danger and is not necessarily interest in being logical, clever, or even beautiful; although, by contradiction, it does not shun any of these eternal musical goals.
Special technical and musical assistance during this concert is provided by Nicola Bernardini.
Program notes, Musik Der Zeit series, Cologne (WDR 1985).
Alvin Curran 27.II.85