Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yes, I dismantled a perfectly good Piano but it's OK, I have an extra....

...well, actually it did need some repair and I thought about going that route but realized that I had a much more interesting path I could follow; a giant Zither.
That's right, I said it...a Giant Zither. Some might argue the terminology but that's OK, I just like saying Giant Zither.

In the tradition of John Cage, Arvo Part, (Tabula Rasa) Henry Cowell and more recently Brian Eno and the Aphex Twins I am going to mutilate, alter and otherwise "modify" (my favorite word) the standard method of playing the beloved Pianoforte.

A brief background on Prepared Piano; usually, this term refers to taking a piano (typically a grand or baby grand for ease of access to the strings) and placing various types of"modifiers"directly on or in between the strings themselves. If you have access to horizontally strung piano give it a try, it can produce tones that sound like ethereal bells( Arvo Part's Tabula Rasa is a wonderful example of this ) to weird and wonderful Clunks and discordant Pank!(s)
Nuts, bolts, rubber mutes, paper, tacks on hammers etc.. have all been used.
Anyway, what I am planning on doing is plucking and hammering (ala Cowell) using various tools-including of the original hammers that I kept from (heretofore known as..) "The Dismantling" of the instrument.

In all honesty, I did not know much of Cowell and his "string piano" techniques when I started taking this one apart with visions of striking and plucking. Then later after a bit of googling, I found that Ol' Henry started doing this in the 20s! I must mention Erik Satie here because he was in on the idea too. And since he is French and all, he probably thought of it first...
I tell you, playing an open piano with multiple fingers (as you would a harp) produces some wonderful tones.

One of the cool things is the *lack* of control you have of the overtones that ring all around a given note. Remember- the strings on a fully functioning piano are muted unless you press the sustain pedal on the piano. So, this is like permanent sustain gone crazy.
Which brings me to another cool feature of owning half a piano;
a Reverberator. I have used the open ring of the strings as an ambient
effect several times when recording an instrument or using the room's (concrete garage) ambience on drum tracks. Recently, I was recording snare hits for my sample bank and the extra ring from the open piano strings added a cool extra ring that could be mixed in to taste.

The first thing I needed to do was tune the dang thing. Hmm...I have good ears. Surely I can tune a piano. I mean, other that that pesky "tempered" thing, it's like a giant guitar, right??
Apparently not. But, despite the learning curve, I have picked up a thing or two about piano tuning, and I found some really cool software that can help you tune a piano if you are really brave and have a couple of extra days on your hands. ( to give you idea of my disposable free time, I have been working bit by bit on the tuning it and this blog for about... a year...)
Oh, the software-it's called TuneLab 97. Good stuff. Thank You to the developer.

Next Stop- use the Giant Zither on an upcoming film score!


Anonymous said...

That rocks! I am going right now to get my sledge hammer and start working on mine. :^)

jdomini00 said...

cool stuff. Now that's getting creative. How difficult is it to learn to tune a piano? I tend to favor digital instruments partly because you dont have to keep them in tune.

Jonathan said...

Thanks J!
I think that a piano is the most difficult instrument to tune...certainly within the conventional western music genres.
There are electronic tuners for pianos but you still have to understand the basics, to use even those. Most piano tuners use their ears and it takes an average of 1-3 years to learn under an apprenticeship. My dabbing in it was fun and educational. I bought the basic tools you need and a book and used some software with a laptop too. But I still hire a pro for my studio piano.
You are right though, digital pianos are getting better all the time. Which one do you use?

jdomini00 said...

I dont really use a digital piano, its just a software controller. Maudio 88es I think? I sold my maudio radium 49 when I started to get serious about learning to play because I felt I was missing out if I didnt have the full 88 keys. I've seen some great deals on craigslist on some upright pianos and I thought it would be a good idea if only I could keep it in tune. Do you think you are going to continue to hone your skills on piano tuning or was it just a one time thing?

Jonathan said...

J- I might do some more tuning if I have time but I am always trying to stay focused on the most important stuff KWIM? :^) It's very time consuming and I can pay someone $125.00 to do it once or twice a year depending on the piano and conditions.
Digital pianos are great. I use them every day. BUT, it is still a whole different instrument to me. Particularly in the way that the note sounds as it decays. IMO, they have not gotten that down yet. BTW, one of the better ones is Ivory-
It sounds really good. Its a CPU hog though. Needs to run it on it's own machine or a really powerful machine with everything else turned off to get good playability.