So it turns out this whole technology thing can be a real pain. I write this having just spent perhaps the bzillionth hour of my life setting up and breaking down a rather unusual and extremely temperamental electronic musical instrument. Or, to be more precise, a device that electronically extends an existing (and very old) musical instrument. When this device is properly installed in a grand piano (rarely happens) the entire system magically becomes the Electromagnetically-Prepared Piano (EMPP), and aside from making some strange and interesting sounds, it is a huge hassle.
The EMPP consists of a rack of electromagnets that rests on the frame of a grand piano. I control the electromagnets with a computer, and they in turn cause the piano strings to vibrate. The results can sound like a piano, but it’s much more fun to move past that, to create sounds that carry no trace of the original instrument – the piano. The EMPP is very good at doing this. Depending on what one does at the computer, it can sound ethereal, harsh, ominous and deep, and a range of other descriptors that won’t mean much unless you actually hear it.
Given all these sonic possibilities, it’s worth the hassle, right? Maybe, but there’s more. The one thing that all these great non-pianistic sounds have in common is that they sound synthetic, as in created by an actual synthesizer (or computer) that would take maybe five minutes to set up. This despite the fact that the piano strings are actually making all the sound. And a piano is, undoubtedly, an acoustic instrument, as opposed to an electronic one like a computer or a synthesizer.
So here I have this elaborate system that takes several hours to set up and adjust properly (rarely happens). I have a grand piano probably worth tens of thousands of dollars, an example of technology that has been painstakingly refined over the course of several centuries. And what do I do with it? Make it sound like a synthesizer. A fact that has given me pause on more than one occasion. Why would I go through all the trouble of dealing with such a temperamental instrument when I could just use a synthesizer?
The short answer is that it somehow makes sense when you see/hear it. It sounds different, it looks different, and the whole thing has a rather mysterious feel to it. Part of this can be explained with physics. Loudspeakers project their sound forward; acoustic instruments project sound in many directions much more evenly. And that makes a big difference. Our brains pick up on that lack of directionality and assure us that what we’re hearing is a real instrument, rather than sound from a speaker.
But there is more to it than that. There’s something about seeing a piano, an entirely familiar and in many ways predictable instrument, making sounds that you’ve never heard a piano make. We’re not terribly surprised when a synthesizer makes exotic, otherworldly sounds. But we don’t typically expect this from instruments invented sometime around 1700. It’s a thrill when these instruments break our sedimented expectations.
So, despite many hours spent wrangling with this fickle beast, I continue to work with it, set it up, demonstrate it, and write music for it. And that’s the thing about technology: it’s really fun! Even when it isn’t the great creator of efficiency we’ve been led to expect, it can be incredibly rewarding just exploring the strange and interesting possibilities.