All I Want For Chanuka

Jonathan Bellman

Ever heard of Geoff Smith and his “fluid piano”? Dig this article and video.  Now, forget all the experimenting-with-eastern-scales-a-genuinely-new-world-awaits claptrap.  That’s as may be; I’ll leave that to the—um—visionaries.  I’ve got my bona fides, after all; I published an article on Raga Rock once, so I’m, y’know, all cross-cultural and about breaking down barriers and like that.

Not!, but never mind.  What this instrument would be for me is the ideal workshop instrument for experimenting with unequal temperaments and the music of Chopin, which has been an ongoing research project of mine.  So forget (until later) the tuning hammer, the SAT III electronic measuring device, forget all of it.  Just me and Chopin and my ears and his music, and tuning slides that would enable me to change things as subtly as I can, almost instantly, to get his music into focus with what I conceive the exact right tuning to be.  My methodology has been, more than anything else, to tune the temperament to the music (if that makes any sense at all), and though I’ve published a short and very obscure piece on the subject I’ve yet to write it up in more readily available form.  Some of the effects are truly astounding, though.

I don’t, frankly, see the fluid piano as a concert instrument, at least as a classical concert instrument; I can’t tell but I don’t think it has 88 (or even 85) keys, and that lets it out for much of the Romantic repertoire, really.  I don’t know what one of these things would cost, but I’d sure love one.

Let me finish with the incomparable chutzpah of quoting Wagner: “But will such a prince be found?”

Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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5 Responses to All I Want For Chanuka

  1. Amy says:

    This is a new approach to historical performance practice. I wonder how Chopin would feel about these new innovations? Perhaps, that is how he wanted to hear his music?

  2. Andy H-D says:

    There’s an unnecessary amount of guitar music (as well as bowed strings, I imagine) that uses scordatura in the run of play, so to speak. Those guys are picking their jaws up from off the floor, I assume.

  3. I couldn’t get a really good tally, even stopping the action of the Guardian’s clips, but it looks to have a range of roughly FF-f”’ – not very good for a lot of the Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire, but there are still many, many keyboard pieces that fit it very neatly (many of which could use unequal temperaments to good effect). I’d guess, judging from the tuning slides and something of the sound, that the string tensions are on the order of those of the fortepiano, which would tend to make it a poor fit for the later repertoire anyway. I suspect the range is limited by practicalities – strings above f”’ would probably be too taut and/or too short to implement his mechanism, whereas the strings below FF would either be too thick to make the slide workable or so long as to make the entire instrument ungainly (or both).
    I *would* like to have a closer look at the action: there was something about the way the hammers were moving that suggests that it might not be entirely conventional (but, again, I wasn’t getting a very good view).
    What I don’t think is a good idea is the surmounted harp, not without some sort of damping mechanism: I’d tend to worry about *uncontrolled* sympathetic vibration, which is not a good trait in a polyphonic instrument. For what Ms Chowhan was playing, it’s fine (although how much of the vibration was harp and how much raised dampers is hard to say – I’d want to hear the dry sound); for a performance of, say, Bach using Werckmeister III temperament, it would be… messy.
    Similarly, Smith makes a point of noting that the instrument is completely acoustic. The problem here is that the slides can be adjusted before a piece, or singly during a piece (e.g., for pitch bends), which is fine when the interest is concentrated in one note at a time, but not so good when one wants to manipulate several notes simultaneously with reasonable precision. I don’t think the instrument would be any less acoustic if he incorporated some form of programmable servos to work the slides (probably be the easiest part of the instrument to design, and the cheapest to implement). If nothing else, it would make changing tunings between pieces a snap.
    Patrick Ross-Ross

  4. jonathan says:

    I have to disagree with the programmable servos part of this. I suspect that there are too many variables involved in pitch (string tension, string age, how hard they’re pulled, plucked, or struck, temperature, humidity, etc.) to make programmable ANYTHING practical. No sooner programmed than out of tune, in other words. I completely agree about the amount of, say, classical repertoire that would benefit from unequal temperaments. I just can’t imagine that changing tunings on a single instrument is ever a “snap,” anywhere!

  5. Pat Ross-Ross says:

    Jonathan, it depends on how well the intrument retains its base tuning (i.e., with the bridges centred) after a number of adjustments to the sliding bridges. Hopefully it doesn’t fall out of tune as easily as, say, most harpsichords.
    At any rate, what I was thinking of was something more along the lines of a macro recorder: a set of slides whose positions at a given moment or over a given period of time can be recorded (while directly affecting the bridges at the time of programming). Possibly a touchscreen interface would work best for this.
    If the Fluid piano is even just reasonably stable in its tuning, this can be done a few hours before a performance, and remain reasonably accurate through the performance (perhaps subject to slight touch-ups using the slides between pieces) – it is *not* something I’d expect to remain accurate much longer. Moving the bridges could (and probably should) be handled as a percentage of the string length relative to the current bridge position, which would prevent touch-ups from disrupting the programming. Relative lengths *don’t* change with the variables you mention.
    Thus, while *setting* the tunings would still be a significant amount of work, *changing* them in performance should be quite a bit easier. The plus side of this kind of interface is that the working lengths of the virtual slides can be normalised. As it is, the higher the note, the more “fidgety” a given adjustment will be: a (possibly much) smaller length of travel (with much tighter tolerances) is required to achieve the same effect as on a lower string. It might make for a better control interface to let one’s fingers travel the same amount for the same perceived change, and let the servos handle the differences in tolerance.
    Please understand, my musings here are because some of Mr. Smith’s design decisions seem to me to be playing against a keyboard instrument’s strength and raison d’être: a single instrument capable of producing polyphony, even quite intricate polyphony, monophony being considered as a special, perhaps degenerate (as a mathematician would use the term) case. As it stands right now, it either works as a polyphonic instrument with a somewhat easier tuning mechanism, or as an essentially monophonic instrument with slides and bends available. To my mind, it would be of real interest if it was a polyphonic instrument capable of coordinated slides and bends: it could then handle the previous cases as well, and thus still be suitable for World music while allowing some expanded possibilities for (acoustic) keyboard music in the Western polyphonic tradition. (I’ve already stated my reservations about the surmounted harp.)
    I think I have an inkling of what you mean about preferred tunings (I have preferred tunings for certain of my own works, although I write them to sound fairly well in equal temperament). In a somewhat similar fashion I see instrumental mechanisms as bound to certain kinds of music. The classic case in point is the organ: I think that both builders and composers worked against the instrument’s grain in the 19th century with their attempts to render it symphonic (it’s really a mechanical additive synthesiser). I suspect Mr. Smith may be doing something similar here.

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