© The Guardian - UK Nov 23, 2009
Composer reinvents the piano
'Fluid' instrument allows pianists to alter sound before or while they play
Pam Chowhan plays the fluid piano, which allows access to scales from India and the Middle East. Photograph: David Levene
For a non-pianist, the idea of a microtonally fluid piano might seem either no big deal or baffling. But this weekend a composer will reveal the result of a 10-year mission – nothing less than the reinvention of one of the most important instruments in western music.
Geoff Smith believes he has come up with the first multicultural acoustic piano – what he has trademarked as a fluid piano – which allows players to alter the tuning of notes either before or during a performance. Instead of a pianist having a fixed sound, 88 notes from 88 keys, Smith's piano has sliders allowing them access to the different scales that you get in, for example, Indian and Iranian music. For good measure, Smith has included a horizontal harp.
The Guardian was last weekend given the first access to an instrument that is already generating considerable excitement – and it can be seen and heard on our website. It will be formally unveiled at the University of Surrey on Saturday and receive a London premiere at the Purcell Room in March.
Smith, a Brighton-based composer and performer, said: "The fluid piano is a western piano as we know it, similar to an early fortepiano, but because of the tuning mechanisms, suddenly, musicians can explore scales from the Middle East, from Iran."
Smith's instrument has been made by the Somerset-based Christopher Barlow and a light ash has been deliberately chosen as the wood – Smith said he did not want it to look like a dark coffin.
The fluid piano has generated much interest since it was first mentioned in the Guardian six years ago – when it was Smith with little more than a one-key mechanism and an ambition. Now he has the actual instrument he has been getting performers on board.
"I've said to musicians they might feel insecure about this piano, they might feel scared. But if they embrace it they will have this big feeling of liberation, a big high."
At the premiere, three pianists will perform, including Pam Chowhan, the head of planning at the Royal Festival Hall. She admitted to being daunted when first confronted with the piano.
"It was really scary, it is even now. I'm mainly a classical pianist and you kind of know what you're doing, you know how the piano is going to respond and you spend ages and ages on tone control andknowinghow it is going to sound. Suddenly I've got a piano which sounds like nothing I've heard before. It opens up so many choices that you become almost paralysed."
There have been all sorts of challenges, including having to come up with her own way of writing music for the instrument.
Chowhan said the internet had helped open access to all sorts of music from around the world. "If you're going to start delving into different cultures and bring those influences into your work you need to think about tuning and the traditional piano simply can't cut it. The piano, for me, is absolutely useless in a non-western context because it can't respond to the subtle and fluid tuning of other cultures."
Also performing on Saturday will be London-based jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh and the Leeds-based improvisational pianist Matthew Bourne. He said playing the fluid piano was "like walking into a huge sweet shop. The possibilities are endless. Sometimes I do nothing, I just sit and stare at it".
Smith said he had received much support – from Arts Council England for example– but had also encountered resistance. "Instruments of the western orchestra are locked in time, ringfenced. Why is that? It's not for technical reasons, so it must be for political or cultural reasons. There's a lot of talk in classical music about making orchestras more diverse. The only way you're going to bring new people in is by changing the instruments. To some people that is a completely alien concept.
"We are one of the most multicultural societies in Europe. Some people need to put their money where their mouth is."
Smith, who has written scores for silent films and is a highly regarded player of the hammered dulcimer, has been invited to take his piano to a Chopin festival in Poland. But the dream is to get his fluid piano manufactured. "It has become a fundamental part of my life, because it's driven by a vision. It's not just about money, although I haven't got much money so of course I'd like to make some. Any money I have had has gone on this," he said. "The thing was, I always knew it would work – I wasn't like some crazy inventor."