Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano

Posted by: Piano World

Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/22/09 09:32 PM

© The Guardian - UK Nov 23, 2009
Composer reinvents the piano

'Fluid' instrument allows pianists to alter sound before or while they play

fluid piano


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."
Posted by: Horowitzian

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/22/09 09:46 PM

I'd be interested to know how well this thing will hold a tune.
Posted by: apple*

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/22/09 09:48 PM

i can see Brendan playing one of these.
Posted by: eweiss

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/22/09 11:42 PM

Cool invention but I don't know how many will embrace it. You can do a hell of a lot with 88 keys.
Posted by: Mark_C

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/23/09 12:30 AM

I'm surprised there's no reference to the ondes martinot, which has pitch modificiation as a continuous feature:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yy9UBjrUjwo

.....but of course this is a piano, and an ondes martinot is just an ondes martinot. smile
Posted by: charleslang

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/23/09 01:04 AM

The tuning adjustments are done by sliding the termination point, but it doesn't affect the tuning pins. It's probably pretty stable with tuning.

The hammers look like small cylindrical things, not like regular hammers at all. This video is also on their site:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/video/2009/nov/22/fluid-piano-classical-music
Posted by: eqaltempered

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/23/09 05:17 AM

Very interesting concept; the tuning itself should be straight forward and as stable as the piano itself, let alone much easier due to only 2 strings per note. The cylindrical hammers make it sound a bit like a sitar and I imagine that standard heads didn't have anywhere near the effect he sought.

Some 20 years ago I fully restored a 7' Bluthner grand. It had four strings per note starting at the treble break; the fourth string had its own tuning pin and wasn't struck by the hammers (in today's grands, this is very commonly achieved by using a fixed duplex scale). It was amazing and fun to deviate from the norm (in my wokshop) by tuning these strings well away from the "intended" frequency.

Mr. Smith accomplished something I only ever imagined could be done and is to be congratulated. I'd love to have an hour or ten with his piano! wink

I guess only time will tell where his concept goes from here and wish him well.

Regards,


Posted by: Rich Galassini

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/23/09 06:19 AM

The concept is very cool. As a fortepiano design, I am sure that tuning stability will not be what a modern piano is and there will be some issues as the relative tension changes with the termination point, but so what?

The guy is thinking out of the box and I congratulate the creative thought that went into this.

This could also be very good for piano technicians. Not many pianists know anything about tuning a piano and if they begin sliding around the termination points and experimenting, someone will have to help them get back to ET, if that is what they desire.

Great idea, Geoff Smith! I wish you the best of luck with it.
Posted by: apple*

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/23/09 10:46 AM

Rich I think you need to acquire one of those for your store, so I can play it when I come to visit.
Posted by: rodmichael

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/23/09 04:50 PM

Interesting, but no banana (from me). I won't be trading my AA.

Who would re-tune the piano for me after I moved one or more of the sliders? Are there markings to show the "home" position?

Since I'm musically challenged with 88 stable tones, I don't foresee any application for me.

I have a hunch the principal buyers for this will be high-end specialty museums with large endowments just filling out their portfolio of musical oddities.

I also have strong curmudgeon tendencies.
Posted by: Rich Galassini

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/23/09 11:18 PM

Originally Posted By: apple*
Rich I think you need to acquire one of those for your store, so I can play it when I come to visit.


You are teasing me, I know. You aren't coming to Philadelphia. wink
Posted by: apple*

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/24/09 10:03 AM

May 2010
Posted by: pianoloverus

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/24/09 10:09 AM

It seems like it should be called a fluid keyboard because, at least in selections in the video, the tone of he individual notes didn't sound at all a like a piano to me.
Posted by: ChrisA

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/24/09 03:29 PM

Have you seen Gibson's "robot" tuning machines? These are for a guitar but could be applied to the piano (if anyone could afford the price.)

They are like normal pins but each has a very small but powerful and geared-down electric motor inside. When you pull out the top of the pin a sensor measures the string's resonate frequency and then adjusts the pitch automatically. It is about as fast as if you did it yourself using one of those electronic tuning gadgets.

Using these Gibson pins might be more practical than the sliders. You could store several pre-set piano tunings or temperaments and change between them quickly. Or even use them to keep a piano in perfect standard tune.

Likely this will not catch on due to the price, it is expensive enough for a six string guitar.
Posted by: gnu

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/24/09 05:31 PM

While there's something impressive about an acoustic piano that can be retuned on the fly, for that effect I'd rather just use a digital piano with the right software.
Posted by: FogVilleLad

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/28/09 02:18 PM

Originally Posted By: gnu
While there's something impressive about an acoustic piano that can be retuned on the fly, for that effect I'd rather just use a digital piano with the right software.
+1.

Combine a DP, fitted with an acoustic's action, with sampled instruments such as a sitar and you've got an instantly available variety of pretuned instruments and a touch with which pianists are already familiar.
Posted by: Peter Sumner- Piano Technician

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 11/28/09 03:16 PM

I just love this concept...
There is a video out there which shows, albeit fleetingly, the hammers striking the strings...looks like an adaptation of a harpsichord with the jacks being replaced with dowels...no idea what material is on the end of the dowel, maybe leather???
There is a stop mechanism of some kind running on top of the strings which maybe either supports the dampers or is a bounce rail of some kind.
As it will be used for micro tonal works based on Indian/Persian and other traditions I guess the accuracy of the tuning will be determined by the musician. Although if it is lightly engineered I can see that being no problem since many harpsichordist tune there own instruments out of necessity.

I too would love to get my hands on one to get a better idea of the concept.

Maybe an invitation to a convention should be considered???
Posted by: bkw58

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 12/01/09 09:42 AM

Very creative, but still a long way off from achieving that which it aspires to be.
Posted by: B Sharp

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 12/01/09 03:22 PM

I wonder why, in the video, the audience never hears that it can sound like a piano. All we hear is a man talking, and then a tiny bit of playing on an instrument that sounds like anything but a piano. It would be a lot more impressive if one heard it sound like a normal piano first, and then heard it sound the way it does in the video.
Posted by: Jake Jackson

Re: Fluid Piano - Composer Reinvents The Piano - 12/03/09 05:31 PM

What are the two scales (Persian? Modal?) that the player mentions?