On 22 February this year, a new piece by composer Jim Aitchison is being premièred – in four separate places simultaneously. Impossible? Nope, thanks to a remarkable new innovation in piano technology.

We talked to Jim Aitchison about the Yamaha Disklavier, Gerhard Richter, and his new composition Portraits for a Study, ahead of its première at Falmouth’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts in Cornwall. And its première at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths University, and Yamaha Music London.

Bachtrack: What is the Yamaha Disklavier, and how did this project come about?

Jim Aitchison: Yamaha’s Disklavier is an innovative, high-tech update of the pianola or player piano. It is a conventional concert grand piano, but with a mechanism and an inbuilt computer enabling it to play by itself from MIDI files, and to be linked to an external computer, or to be networked with other Disklaviers hundreds or even thousands of miles away, or to be played as a normal piano, or a combination of all of these things.

Jim Aitchison with the Yamaha Disklavier at Falmouth University © Alexander Walker / Cartel Photos
Jim Aitchison with the Yamaha Disklavier at Falmouth University
© Alexander Walker / Cartel Photos
The Portraits for a Study project, supported by Arts Council England and the PRS for Music Foundation, came about as part of my ongoing interest in translating elements from visual artworks into musical responses, and, specifically, after an encounter with Gerhard Richter’s work at the 2011–12 Tate Modern exhibition, where I felt an irresistible compulsion to engage with his artworks as a composer. Several things struck me about his work, particularly the sense of distance and a kind of anonymity, the use of chance and uncertainty, multiples and sequences, blurring and erasure, and dialogue with the past. Subsequently, it occurred to me that I could explore aspects of musical past, sometimes filtered through procedures of controlled chance, and performed over real geographical distance. I discovered the perfect vehicle for this at Falmouth University in the form of the University’s Disklavier, which can be connected to several other Disklaviers far away geographically, and performed remotely by just one person.

Following on from this, a unique set of circumstances fell into place to make the project possible, including, my association with Tate from which arose my engagement with Richter’s work, my long-term collaboration with the musicians (pianist Roderick Chadwick and the Kreutzer Quartet), my position as an Honorary Research Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music and my work as an Associate Lecturer at Falmouth, the close relationships between Falmouth University, Yamaha, the pan-European Vconect video conferencing research project and Goldsmiths University, and also leading expertise in Disklavier technology resident at Falmouth.

Gerhard Richter's work on exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, 2012 © Creative commons on Flickr; image by mompl
Gerhard Richter's work on exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, 2012
© Creative commons on Flickr; image by mompl

What compositional possibilities does this invention open up – and how does it affect your piece?

The Disklavier offers many unique possibilities for composers, especially in terms of creating complex textures beyond human performance capabilities, engaging live with layers of pre-recorded material and creating interactions with computer environments. However, my response to Richter makes use of none of these possibilities! I set out, quite deliberately, to write piano music to be playable by pianists on any instrument, where all the musical procedures arising from engaging with the artworks are created within the fabric of generally recognizable piano textures and relate to capabilities of human players. Indeed, in future, I hope that the music may find a home in the normal concert activity of pianists, and not be at all dependent upon the unique configuration we have devised for the première.

What I wanted from the Disklavier was to make use of its networking capability to create a sense of distance and anonymity in performance that related to the expressive effect of artworks by Richter: i.e. to force a disconnection between the performer and audience, achieved through networking multiple simultaneous versions of the same performance over distance. I decided to achieve this through creating a configuration of one live pianist, Roderick Chadwick, performing at Falmouth University and triggering three remote Disklaviers 300 miles distant, to play exactly what he plays, and exactly how he performs (the potential for chance data aberrations in transfer notwithstanding), simultaneously at three different venues in London: the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths University and Yamaha Music London.

However, I decided to take the compositional applications beyond even the Disklavier-piano. I realised early on in the creative process of responding to Richter that the notion of creating varied copies and re-filtering across media was critical to me, and so I re-composed all the original piano music into a new version for the strings of the Kreutzer Quartet, for this to be performed from the David Josefowitz Recital Hall at the Royal Academy of Music back to the other venues via an audio-visual link devised by Vconect.

Jim Aitchison’s soundmap after Richard Deacon’s sculpture Individual © Jim Aitchison 2008
Jim Aitchison’s soundmap after Richard Deacon’s sculpture Individual
© Jim Aitchison 2008
We published an article earlier this month talking about the influence of visuals in piano performance. Is it different, writing for piano when you know that most of the audience won’t be able to see the pianist?

I’m not sure if knowing that a large proportion of the audience won’t be proximate to the live performer affected me directly in how I composed. I think I saw this aspect as just one of the many devices and filters that I was placing over the material, all of which seek to explore this sense of distance and partial effacement of the artist-composer-performer. However, consciousness of the visual effect has always been very much in my mind, as I imagined what it would be like for the audience to experience the piano, playing apparently by itself, and doing so in the presence of projections of the paintings by Richter that I have responded to.

Tell us about the relationship your composition has to Gerhard Richter’s work. Are there particular works of his that it deals with? How does it do so?

Richter's stained glass window in Cologne Cathedral © Fritz F / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Richter's stained glass window in Cologne Cathedral
© Fritz F / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Richter’s output is well known, sometimes controversially, for being incredibly diverse, often exploring violently contrasting styles, from photo-realism, to minimalism to abstraction, taking in influence from a wide variety of sources, new and old. I chose to limit this project largely to the scope of his photo-real and landscape paintings and some of the minimalist-constructed output, including paintings from the famous October 18, 1977 series, depicting after-death images of members of the Red Army Faction (the Dead paintings), paintings of the artist’s family (Aunt Marianne), a “constructed” seascape (Sea-Sea), and the stained glass window from Cologne Cathedral (derived from his painting, 4096 Colours).

However, even bearing in mind my attempt to narrow down the creative possibilities into a more manageable range, I have been astonished by the richness and variety of ideas that have arisen for me. Of all the elements present, controlled chance and uncertainty, limited and mediated through formal procedures, have played an enormous role throughout Portraits for a Study, in a variety of ways. From harvesting and re-assembling tiny fragments of music by Bach and Beethoven according to simple pre-established rules, to creating transcriptions of photo-improvisations, to applying rigid filters to large spans of material, to using strict methods of cutting and re-ordering material, where the outcome of this is uncertain. Uncertainty is also built into the performance configuration itself: there is no way of knowing exactly how much of the data transferred between the remote Disklaviers over the internet will come through and how this will affect the sounding result, as this is significantly dependant upon many variables.

Other notable features I have made use of include blurring, scraping off or erasure, palimpsest, the blow-up, mechanical reproduction and copying, multiples and sequences (such as seen in the colour charts). These are all filtering strategies that I see as establishing distance, levelling out, relative anonymity, and an aspiration towards the non-subjective intervention of the artist. I have sought compositional applications for all of these things: mechanically copying a whole Rondo by Dussek and then in one case blurring it almost beyond recognition through simple musical means, and in another case, taking a fragment from the same piece, blowing it up six-fold and then completely erasing it and filling its duration with something else. In another instance, solo string pieces by Bach are buried under layers of musical “over-painting”, some carefully contrived, others more coarsely applied. Multiples and sequences are used throughout the pieces, in the re-patterning of assembled fragments or in more intricately ordered cutting and re-positioning of segments of improvisations. Once again, the performance configuration is intimately invested in this: multiples, sequences and distance are created quite literally with four linked Disklavier pianos spread over 300 miles, and then the same material performed and transmitted again, re-composed for string quartet.

Do you see a future for music played on the Disklavier?

I’m sure the Disklavier will have a future, especially for composers and performers wanting to experiment in remote performance, interactions with absent performers, placement in alternative performance settings, hyper-complex textures, and interactions with computer environments.

What other innovations in instrument-making would you like to see as a composer?

In terms of this project, it might have been interesting to have similar remote-but-present networking possibilities on other instruments in addition to the piano, but I feel very happy that we are exploring this in terms of the video conferencing technology being pioneered by the Vconect research project.

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