Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fluid Piano

Below is a video clip of the first performance last year of a new instrument. dubbed a "fluid piano" by its inventor, British composer Geoff Smith. The piece is Fluid C composed and performed by Matthew Bourne.

Many pianists and composers have lamented the fact that a piano can't be retuned easily. Equal temperament is the default and most instruments are just stuck with it. Electronic keyboards offered some alternatives, but they are ... um ... electronic. They don't have the life and the soul of a fine acoustic instrument.

Over the centuries since keyboard instruments rose to prominence, others have tried their hand at modifying the design so that it could play microtonal music or variable tunings. By far this strikes me as the simplest and most practical effort to date. It has the further advantage of being entirely mechanical--no electricity needed at all to make the thing work. The design could play standard piano music or any number of alterations.

Part of its charm, but also it's greatest limitation, is that it uses a standard piano keyboard. That means that should you want a scale of, say, 21 notes in an octave, and you're going to be using more than 12 of those at any one time, then it's not going to be playable on this instrument. On the other hand, a little bit of creative planning on the part of composers and performers could overcome that limitation (retuning with one hand while playing with the other, for instance, as the performer does here).

The instrument shown here has a thinner, harpsichord-y timbre. That is entirely charming in its own right, but I imagine it has more to do with the instrument's prototype status than any limitation in the design.

In short, I'm really excited about the prospects for the fluid piano. I would love to try one myself. I anticipate many composers of many nationalities taking advantage of this instrument's flexibility to create a whole new genre of keyboard and ensemble music.

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