with Steven Swartz
When we released the Nostalgic Synchronic album, Steven Swartz compiled an FAQ about bitKlavier and the album. I’m updating it and including it here.
What is Nostalgic Synchronic? A software app? An album? A collection of sheet music?
Nostalgic Synchronic is the title for a collection of eight pieces I composed. This collection was released both as a volume of sheet music and as an album. These pieces are composed for an instrument I describe as a “prepared digital piano,” inspired by the prepared piano and driven by software I’ve created called bitKlavier.
What is a prepared piano?
We “prepare” the piano by sticking screws, forks, coins—really any object that we can—between the strings of a piano, changing the way those particular strings sound when played. The process of preparing a piano can be quite time consuming and technical; these objects have to be placed in specific locations to create the desired sound, and we may need to do this for dozens of the strings individually. In the end, this transforms the homogenous instrument that we know so well into an idiosyncratic instrument that might sound like an entire percussion ensemble, even if it feels exactly like the familiar piano under the hands.
The key here is that the sound of any note that we play is changed radically, though our technique for playing the instrument remains essentially unchanged.
How can a digital piano be “prepared?” Don’t all digital keyboards work the same way, with keys that trigger audio samples?
Right, we can’t stick a screw between the “strings” of a digital piano, since it doesn’t actually have any strings! What’s important to remember is that anything digital is essentially a computer. So when we press the keys on a digital piano, we are actually telling a computer to go look in its memory (its RAM!) to find the digital data (a string of 0’s and 1’s) that is the pre-recorded digitized audio sample of that particular note on a piano and transform those 0’s and 1’s into something analog that can be sent to a speaker and ultimately to our ears: it’s an algorithm. It’s remarkably complicated and amazing that it works at all, but the essence of it is that the piano hammer and the string it strikes are replaced by a computer algorithm—a kind of virtual hammer and string—in the digital piano.
Now, we can do the digital equivalent of sticking a screw between the strings of a piano by sticking a new algorithm (a kind of virtual screw) inside this algorithm (the virtual hammer and string) that drives the digital piano. So just as the screw mucks with the vibrations of the resonating string, these virtual screws muck with the behavior of the virtual hammer and string, causing it to respond in unusual ways, in ways that are impossible with the acoustic piano.
So the prepared digital piano is driven by a software instrument I’ve built—called bitKlavier—and in some key ways is similar to the conventional prepared piano—we carefully prepare it and then we play it with technique that is essentially the same as playing a regular piano—but the nature of the preparations is inherently digital—they are algorithms that tell the digital piano (which is a computer at its core!) to behave in ways that the traditional piano can’t.
Why go to all that trouble? Why not just create audio samples that do those things themselves?
These digital preparations not only make the instrument sound in ways that the conventional piano simply can’t, but they are also immediately responsive to how the player plays, so they behave differently every time they are played depending on the timing and energy of the performance. Adam will tell you that very subtle variations in tempo really make the performance feel different, sometimes dramatically different. We can also go in and tweak the preparation—adjust the position of the virtual screw—so that it sounds and feels differently and then immediately play with it; it’s dynamic in a way that a pre-recorded system simply can’t be.
What equipment do I need to use this application? How do I go about setting it up? Does it take a lot of technical savvy?
It’s pretty straightforward! Any kind of MIDI keyboard, even a small one with only two octaves, will do. At the moment, bitKlavier runs on OS X (though an iOS version is under development and a Windows version is in the plans) and it should run fine on any fairly recent computer (I use it on a Macbook Air). You just plug the keyboard in, launch bitKlavier, and begin to play. There are “presets” which immediately prepare the instrument in specific ways, and you can simply choose one of those presets and explore, or you can dig deeper and and have a go at configuring your own preparations; even at this stage, though, you don’t need to do any programming — it’s mostly a matter of making choices about how you want it to respond to your playing.
Can I use this software to play anything besides the pieces on the album?
Absolutely! A number of musicians have used it in improvisational contexts, and at the moment a group of composers are composing a set of “mikroetudes”—small pieces inspired by Bartók’s Mikrokosmos—for the instrument. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what might be done with it.
Are you a pianist? What inspired you to build this app and write these pieces?
I am a poor pianist, alas (for the most part, I can’t play my own pieces!). But I love the instrument and I love to fight through, say, Bach as much as I can. I also grew up with a super accomplished pianist (my sister) and both of my kids play. While I love the piano when I hear it in concert, I think for me what’s most compelling about the piano is to actually sit at it and explore ideas, whether my own or others’. So it’s less about performance than it is about explorations in sound and music; it’s such a wonderfully musical contraption!
It was in this spirit of exploration that I built the prepared digital piano. I like to program, and to build software instruments that I can improvise with and try out musical ideas with. I have a digital piano in my studio that I use all the time, and in some ways I began building the prepared digital piano almost by accident; the digital piano was handy, already connected to my computer, so I would code up some things, try them out, and see where they took me.
Nostalgic Synchronic grew out of this. At first, I thought I was just making some little studies to work out some compositional ideas, but they quickly became pieces in their own right; when I showed the first couple to Adam and he responded so strongly to them, I was inspired to push it further, and these eight pieces are the first result. I’ve also been using the instrument and aspects of these pieces in a number of other pieces for larger ensembles, so it’s been super productive!
It looks as if you can set some of the keys to behave differently from the rest – kind of like the middle “sostenuto” pedal on a concert piano. Is that an accurate analogy?
That is a useful analogy. The great thing about the sostenuto pedal is that it changes the behavior of the instrument as you play—some keys respond differently than others—and this is exactly what happens with the prepared digital piano. This also highlights one key difference between the prepared acoustic piano and the prepared digital piano; once you’ve prepared an acoustic piano, it’s basically static—it takes some time and effort to reach into the piano to change the preparation, even just for one string—but with the prepared digital piano, you can actually set it up so that playing one note will instantaneously change ALL of the preparations. The instrument seems to magically change under your hands as you play.
Do you see any connection between this music and the great classical piano literature?
I do, though I think Adam has spoken to this better than I can, and his wife Cristina Altamura—a fabulous pianist—has also written about connections she perceives between these new pieces on some of the Classical rep (Haydn, in particular, which I find fascinating!). In the end, my hope is that the pieces engage players in both new and old fashioned ways, whether they perform the pieces or simply explore them and the instrument on their own.
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