Stefan Prins Piano Hero #1 (2011, rev. 2012) Piano Hero #2 (2011, rev. 2013/2016)
The ‘modern’ grand piano, perfected in the nineteenth century, consists of a keyboard, a set of metal strings and an ingenious mechanism of hammers and dampers, which serve as the transmission between the pianist’s muscles and the strings. The wooden body of the piano amplifies the vibrations of the strings when they’re hit by a hammer. In Piano Hero this configuration is ‘updated’ and placed in today’s context, using some of the typical artifacts of the twenty-first century: the keyboard is now an electronic one; the computer serves as the transmission; and the strings are played by a virtual pianist—the avatar of the pianist of flesh and blood sitting on stage—while the wooden resonating body is substituted by a set of electromechanical speakers. But it is not only the piano that is recontextualized. The mechanism of observing, as done by the audience, is also taken into the equation. The act of observing has undergone a radical change of meaning in a society that is ever more ‘monitored’, either by the millions of security cameras in public places, a network of geostationary satellites which can zoom in to human dimensions, or the World Wide Web on which everyday millions of homemade videos are posted and watched by millions of anonymous viewers.
Piano Hero #1 is the point zero of the Piano Hero cycle: the pianist becomes a mere operator in a world of bits and bytes. From Piano Hero #2 on, the grand piano (which has become a Fremdkörper (foreign body) after the context-shift of Piano Hero #1) enters the game to fully articulate the tension between the real and the virtual, the human and the mechanical, the past and the present. Further Piano Heroes are in process.
David Bird Iron Orchid (2021)
Iron Orchid is an album-length electro-acoustic work for piano and electronics in collaboration with the pianist Ning Yu. It builds on materials generated for the interactive sound sculpture Echo Chamber, an eleven-foot metallic structure on which we collaborated with site-specific public artist Mark Reigelman II in 2019. Employing a wide range of techniques in dialogue with a constantly shifting electronic environment, Iron Orchid explores the relationship between human and computer-generated sounds, blurring the distinction between them with a catalog of inventive strategies and creating a sound world in which the two become logical complements.
Michael Beil Key Jack (2016)
My compositions before Key Jack were increasingly radical with regard to the separation of sound, sound production, and movement to produce sound. In the process, the musicians’ playing movements became compositional material, and the sound production was decoupled from the sound and recombined. To me, this way of working reflects the process of an increasing ‘virtualization’ of actions and an ‘avatarization’ of people that we have been experiencing for decades. It began in music—with occasional playback in concert—and on television and is now manifesting itself on the Internet and in social media. The temporal and spatial separation of personality and appearance, of action and perception, still troubled us in the last century. What a scandal it was when it came out in the ‘80s that Milli Vanilli didn’t sing themselves, couldn’t even sing. Today, fake has become the norm. More and more often we see people and objects first aestheticized on the Internet and then perhaps in the wider world. Young people today experience many things first on the Internet or in movies, and a subsequent encounter in real life may even seem artificial to them. The formerly ‘real’ may appear rather unfamiliar and unsettling today. There were certainly doubts about the authenticity of our so-called reality before, but now we can relax and assume that most of what we experience is not real anyway.
In creating the ‘spectacle concert’ in a composition, it was therefore natural for me to take the consistent step of omitting the instrument on stage. Thus, in Key Jack, a pianist performs without a piano. Otherwise, everything is as usual, except for the fact that the pianist is multiplied, quasi-avatarized. And you may find yourself forgetting while watching which one is the real one. Before the first performance of Key Jack in Belgium in 2017, I was still a bit worried that the piece might overwhelm or even provoke the pianist or the audience. After all, it’s all fake. In the meantime, I have discussed the necessary fingerings and facial expressions with many pianists. And rarely has the response to a piece been so unanimously positive as with Key Jack. One can say that contemporary music has arrived in the twenty-first century. Long live the Avatar, who helps and protects us, but also confuses and inspires us.