By Carey-Lyn Holt
Adding an acoustic element, in this case a piano, to an ensemble that is primarily made up of electronic instruments is rewarding but it also presents challenges. It is rewarding because it adds a sense of depth to the colour palette of the ensemble. One of the challenges is matching the acoustic instrument’s volume with the electronic instruments. Another challenge is in the seemingly limited palette of sound the piano can produce and how to make it unique enough to blend but also to stand out from the electronic sound sources. Luckily, because the ensemble is electronic, the challenges become opportunities.
A familiar instrument, such as the piano, can establish a foundation for the listeners. Audience members and musicians alike who are beginning to approach electronic music may find the piano’s presence comforting. Regardless of the audience, acoustic instruments elevate electronic instruments because it makes them more tangible and approachable.
To successfully integrate the piano into the ensemble, amplification is needed. By amplifying the acoustic signal, it allows the pianist the full dynamic range. I toyed with the idea of processing the piano signal in a digital audio workstation. It would lend the piano a wider range of sounds and (dynamic levels allowing) would keep the original acoustic sound as a doubling. However, I did not try this, if I had wanted a processed sound a much simpler solution would have been to set up a laptop with a midi keyboard station.
Diversifying the piano’s sound is another challenge when it comes to integrating it into the electronic ensemble. The piano’s sound without alteration can give respite to the more aggressive electronic sounds. As mentioned before, audience members who are new to the world of electronic music may unconsciously (or consciously) be listening for the piano’s pure sound. In this way, the sound produced by the piano can stand out and contrast the electronic sounds. But how does one extend the piano so that it adds to the ensemble’s colour? By following John Cage’s prepared piano techniques.
By preparing the piano the player opens a whole plethora of new timbres. When new sounds emit from a familiar instrument, the initial reaction can be quite shocking. By only using your hands you can play harmonics, scratch and/or strum the strings, and much more. Starting with harmonics, it works the best when you use the lower strings that have only one thick string. By gently pressing your finger on one of the string’s nodes it will create a harmonic.
Often chalk is used to mark the nodes. Luckily, even if you can’t quite reach a node, pressing gently anywhere on the string creates a bell like sound when you play the string’s corresponding key on the keyboard with the dampening pedal depressed. The strings also have ridges in them and by drawing your fingernails down the string it can create a very characteristic scratching sound. Another interesting effect is when the player strums or plucks the strings.
Another way to prepare a piano is to insert objects into the piano and play the keyboard or do any of the previously mentioned techniques. Placing paper lengthwise over strings can create an interesting buzzing sound as the vibrations coming from the strings move across the paper. Inserting erasers and hardware between the strings is also a common direction to take. A very effective sound can be produced by placing a pencil across the strings. With every hammer hit, the pencil bounces and excites the string again creating a double hit with a hint of a deadstroke.
The sounds you can create with a piano are almost limitless and if amplification is provided, the piano should have no trouble keeping up with the evolving electronic world.