By Xenia Pestova Bennett
As a performer living and working today, I have to be able to wear different hats in terms of the skills I must learn to cultivate, how I relate to audiences and how I respond to the contrasting demands of my repertoire. Though trained as a pianist, I have to be comfortable with a variety of different keyboards and techniques requiring a range of musical approaches.
The concert grand piano as we know it today appears to have stopped evolving after the invention of the middle “sostenuto” pedal in the mid-1800s (which allows us to hold on to tones selectively rather than indiscriminately, as with the sustain pedal). While attempts continue to be made to improve the instrument (such as a notable recent rejuvenation of the piano by Sarah Nicolls), performers and composers also search for ways to obtain new sounds from the existing models and push them beyond their limits. Extended techniques pioneered since the early 20th century have become the norm in increasing the instrument’s sound palette.
We can also access a wider variety of sounds through the use of technology, not only by combining the acoustic instrument with fixed or live electronics, but also through creating hybrid instruments or abandoning the acoustic paradigm altogether and venturing into the world of digital musical instruments. Lastly, we can of course also play less familiar acoustic keyboard instruments, many of which offer exciting and unexplored possibilities.
One successful example of a hybrid instrument is the Magnetic Resonator Piano (MRP) developed by Andrew MacPherson at Queen Mary University London. Electromagnets can be installed above the strings of any grand piano, which are then controlled from a keyboard scanner. This allows us to do things that normally wouldn’t be possible, such as produce a crescendo from nothing, extend the tone indefinitely, access pitch bends and activate different partials in the harmonic spectrum – all of this while having the option to use the regular piano mechanism. As a result, the performer can also rely on their existing motor skills and build new ways of playing on top of their technical foundation, as opposed to have to learn a new instrument from scratch. I will be releasing an album of my music for the MRP on Diatribe Records in the new year, also featuring the Ligeti Quartet.
My collaboration with composer Pierre Alexandre Tremblay resulted in his piece asinglewordisnotenough 2: aria da capo for the ROLI Seaboard, which to the best of our knowledge was the first composition of chamber music for live electronics and this recent digital instrument based loosely on a keyboard interface.
One of the challenges in this kind of performance ecosystem is that all sound originates from the loudspeakers via a sound synthesis engine on a laptop rather than from the instrument itself, so we can come up against issues of (dis)embodiment and physicality. As listeners, we automatically associate gesture and the physical force required to play an instrument with the resultant sound. For this reason, the composer places three speakers behind the performer and two to each side to try and create a connected sound field. However, physical relationships can still become vague in this situation, not least because the instrument requires non-standard (or perhaps unfamiliar) approaches to produce the sounds. There can also be some confusion between the sounds produced by the instrument and the accompanying live electronics.
Even though the Seaboard mimics the same key distribution as a standard keyboard, the required performance techniques might be more natural for a string player due to the continuous control that one can obtain through pushing and moving around in the keys, which are made from a connected piece of silicone rather than discrete levers. The fact that all keys are essentially one continuous object also means that physical traits that are second nature to pianists such as sliding forwards on the white key “between” the black keys to create more space to pass the thumb under the other fingers in fast passagework have to be discarded, as there is simply no room to maneuver for such techniques. Moreover, the shape of each key is a gentle curve, which makes it more difficult to balance on for a pianist used to flat surfaces. As a result, a sizeable proportion of one’s existing motor skills has to be unlearned, despite the effort of the composer to experiment with multiple expressive mappings, most of which were dismissed in the early stages of the collaboration process. While developed for commercial use in studio and media production, the controller’s potential as a virtuoso concert instrument cannot make direct use of pianistic nuances and as such will require a new performance practice.
Other alternatives to the piano include portable instruments such as the Indian harmonium and the tiny tinkly toy piano, both of which provide great ways to engage with audiences. However, both instruments also require the performer to learn new techniques due to the nature of tone production (you can access my article on toy piano performance here). Portable instruments also provide opportunities to perform in venues with no piano. For a pianist, this can be a wonderful way to get to play in spaces that would otherwise be completely inaccessible. My most recent tiny piano collaboration was premiering a new piece for two toy pianos by Hilda Paredes at festival rainy days 2019 in Luxembourg with Amsterdam-based pianist Pascal Meyer. The UK premiere is on the 14th of May in Nottingham at the Djanogly Theatre as part of the Nottingham Forum for Artistic Research concert series, which I co-founded in 2016.
Of course, we don’t have to completely reinvent what the piano is already capable of and play with hybrids, electronic controllers or alternative keyboards in order to do interesting work. I love presenting this complex beast we know and love in new contexts. My latest project looks at a salient piece of keyboard repertoire through a contemporary filter: J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations in a version by composer Karlheinz Essl with live electronics. In Gold.Berg.Werk, we present the variations in a new configuration interspersed with spatialised electronic interludes executed in real time. Keep an eye out for our UK tour in 2020.
Xenia Pestova Bennett is an innovative performer and educator. Described as “a powerhouse of contemporary keyboard repertoire” (Tempo), “stunning” (Wales Arts Review), “ravishing” (Pizzicato) and “remarkably sensuous” (New Zealand Herald) in the international press, she has earned a reputation as a leading interpreter of uncompromising repertoire alongside masterpieces from the past.