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An Innovative Opportunity

As a professor for piano, first at the Folkwang University in Essen, now at the Music University in Frankfurt in Main, Germany, I not only have had close contact with composers and performers in electronic music for many years, but have also been privileged to be a part of several productions. By far the majority of my experiences have been gathered during the past six years as artistic director of a very special festival at the ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (Centre for Art and Media Technology) in Karlsruhe, Germany: Piano+ — Music for Piano and Electronics. The festival offers composers and performers the rare opportunity to openly experiment with a unique environment.

First I shall briefly describe the festival and will then touch on aspects of performances that regularly re-emerge in discussions regarding the performer in electronic music. Finally a glimpse into my personal experiences with piano and electronics can perhaps serve to make my conclusions and wishes plausible.

Piano+ Music for Piano and Electronics Festival at the ZKM

During the course of six festivals (Piano+ 2011 is in the planning) works by 73 composers have been presented. Of those works 21 were world premieres. Further involved were 30 sound engineers and 44 instrumentalists — in other words, 74 performers.

The “+” in the title serves as an open window. We have had works for piano and electronics plus accordion, percussion, viola, toy pianos, electric guitar and, planned for 2011, trombone. Presenting a limited number of works also without electronics for the instruments involved (for example Angel Dust, for accordion and trombone by Nicolaus A. Huber) and balancing that with a limited number of purely electronic works (such as TopoPhonicPlateuas, a 27-channel concert installation by Sabine Schaefer) enhances the overall concept for two reasons: a) to clearly demonstrate the influence of electronics on instrumental composition; and b) to strongly exemplify the role of the performer in electronic music.

Also included in the “+” is fixed and/or live video.


The Institute for Music and Acoustics is a strong unit within the Centre for Art and Media Technology. A large percentage of the world premieres performed at Piano+ were conceived and realised at the ZKM. For the composers this means not only the enormous advantage but also the burden of having the best available environment at their disposal plus the temptation of the Kubus Concert Hall, where a Klangdom (Sound Dome) with 47 computer-controlled loudspeakers has been installed. The Klangdom plays a dominant role in my experiences with and thoughts on the performer in electronic music.

Compensation — Freedom

Recently I was at the performance of Valentin Haller’s (An‑)Näherungs-Versuche (2010), which integrated a programmed mobile telephone in the theatricals of the piece. The keys of the cell phone instigated computer reactions audible through the loudspeakers in the hall. Since it was not the first performance of that specific work I had heard, it became immediately obvious to me that the two performers were forced to compensate for the lack of reliability of the electronics. “Just before the concert everything was working perfectly” is a sentence I have often heard, a remark closely related to the “yesterday when I played it, it went so well” that I have heard even more often in the course of my teaching years. Both statements can only be followed by two questions:

Only a performer intimately acquainted with the spirit and functional expression of the interaction between his instrument and the live electronics and endowed with improvisational talent, ambition and training can offer adequate compensation. The performer is “beamed” into the merging of such existences as composer, technician, stage manager and instrumentalist. Some discover freedom in that and enjoy it perhaps even more than when everything “works”.

Chains — Responsibility

The Round Table discussion at Piano+ 2010 was the last of a series moderated by Julia Gerlach (Project coordination and Publications at ZKM) called “The Performer in Electronic Music”. At that discussion a participant immediately admitted to his feelings of being a captive of the click-track or of the stop-watch. The duplication of sound events that demand the precise synchronisation of a production can no longer be “enjoyed” by the performers in electronic music to the same extent as for example in the “Finale. Presto” movement of the Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano op. 47 (Kreutzer), or of the third movement of the Schumann A-minor Sonata for Violin and Piano. The listening perspective is so radically shifted that the performer is totally subservient to his/her “knowledge” of his/her role in the production as a whole. This shifted perspective is well-known to musicians in orchestras. It is humbling for the “producers” and demands a highly developed sense of socialization; for the “consumers” it is potentially satisfying.

Markets — Costs

How is the situation in concert halls, where loudspeakers need to be transported into the halls and security allows only inadequate set-ups? Are loudspeakers not similar to concert grands that are chosen with the knowledge of the acoustics of a potential hall? Can the quality of the equipment required equal the quality of the musical instruments being played? The cost of numerous loudspeakers can easily amount to the cost of a single “natural” instrument. The loudspeakers do not demand concert fees to cover their living expenses. Will that fact eventually put pressure on instrumentalists to even further reduce their financial expectations, or will the role taken by them support innovation, further the awareness and appreciation of electronic music and lead consequently to broader sponsorship that secures adequate fees for instrumentalists and sound engineers?

Interaction — Inspiration

The presence of a human being on stage has such an enormous impact on the perception of an observer that although a sound engineer may be regulating several channels, the overall acceptance of the relationship performer-electronics is that of one to one.

The performer is not perceived as a “soloist” as in a piano or a violin concerto with orchestra, but certainly as an equal to a sound environment coming from different directions in the hall from several loudspeakers and not simply as one of many sound sources. A varying of that perception depends entirely on the nature of the composition and/or on the communicative powers of the performer.

So although there is really no such thing as a “soloist” in works for computer-generated music and performers, there is plenty of room for numerous “individualists” working together on productions in music for performers and electronics. Playing a MIDI piano and knowing that the intensity, length and speed of touch can influence the live electronics in infinite ways, having the opportunity to react to spontaneous actions by a sound engineer, inspiring the sound engineer to spontaneous actions, omnivorously sponging up the sounds and velocities of which a computer is capable to expand the instrumentalists own capacities — all these individual activities can lead us down roads to places we have not yet visited.

Seeing — Hearing

In his book Die Leichtigkeitsluege: Über Musik, Medien und Komplexität (The Lies of Simplicity: On Music, media and complexity, 2009), Holger Noltze reflects on the hierarchy of the senses. For centuries, “hearing” was indisputably at the top of the list. Can hearing enhance our seeing, seeing our hearing? A performer with video and electronics is undoubtedly a highly entertaining form of art. Very special demands are made on that particular performer. Are we capable of developing a new sense — that of “seearing”, as I name it?

Me — The Sound Engineer — The Equipment and My Piano

My first two experiences almost 30 years ago with piano and electronics were diametrically opposed. Unforgettable: recording Scarbo (third movement of Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel) and experiencing its metamorphosis as compositional material used by Ludger Brümmer (Director of the Institute Music and Acoustic at ZKM). It was a revelation — piano sounds, related to the instrument itself but electronically transformed and amplified through the loudspeakers. I was able to sense an idea of infinite sound possibilities. And then in Beds and Brackets with tape and/or windows and doors to be opened by Nicolaus A. Huber: the tape and the opened windows and doors did not transform the sound of the piano but gave the sound completely new connotations by opening it to exist in the midst of infinite sound environments.

I have used click tracks, stopwatches and knowledge of a tape for synchronization purposes. The fascination of Peter Ablinger’s Voices and Piano brought me to new levels of “conversing” with electronics while performing on the piano. The chamber musical aspect of piano and electronics intrigues me. Not having the “listener’s” perspective of the whole disturbs me no more but also no less than knowing we cannot see ourselves as others see us. I can only work within the perspectives available to me and can attempt possible shifts. I value the give and take of live electronics. The occasional seemingly illusory and polished demands of composers related to programming (if a note is played too softly, no computer reaction is heard; if a wrong key is pressed, the resulting sound takes us in a surprising or even impractical direction for the piece, etc.) quickly reminds instrumentalists of the seemingly illusory demands made on them by serial compositions. The sky is the limit!

The usage of video poses particular problems:

I still find it impossible to see and hear simultaneously with the same intensity. But perhaps to have that capability is an irrelevant desire.

A most inspiring capacity of electronics is the lengthening of sound, particularly that of the piano sound. I have always believed that the piano is the most natural of all instruments and that my love of it is closely related to that nature. In the same moment a sound is produced, it begins to die. Intense discussions, court cases, family tragedies often circle the question of life extension. If the life to be extended is the sound of the piano, that otherwise “dies” an extremely natural death, I solidly support my “turning the sound on” by striking a key and am grateful for all those with power over the equipment of extension and modulation. There have always been composers with visions of unending sounds. Beethoven perhaps “extended” sounds by means of vibrating note repetitions or pedal modulations over bars and bars.

The opportunities at ZKM look into a future. They can help avoid what the Russian composer Wladimir Tarnopolski, calls “cultural diabetes”.

The constant increase of repertoire for piano and electronics will surely extend the life of the piano itself. It is my sincere hope that the ongoing academicism will have enough blood and muscle to accompany the process!

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