K by Dylan Crismani

In this piece I’ve crossed a line: you’re no longer hearing sounds that are possible on an acoustic piano. It starts off sounding normal enough, but a couple of minutes in you’ll notice something interesting.

This is the first piece I’ve encountered that combines elements of minimalism with alternative tuning systems. I’ll come back to those elements soon, but first a bit about the technical magic that allows me to play and retune a two-piano piece on one keyboard.

On my first attempt at recording this piece, I tried to multi-track it. Just record the piano 1 part on its own, then listen and play along with piano 2. How hard can it be?

What I found was that with the shifting polyrhythms, synchronising the two parts was a nightmare. You only have to hesitate for a tiny fraction of a second in changing from one pattern to the next, and you’re audibly out of step. So the multitrack option was going to take either a lot of rehearsal or a lot of editing.

So I went to a trick that’s familiar to any keyboardist from an 80s band, but much less common in the classical piano world: the keyboard split. Just set up your electric keyboard so that the left and right halves are controlling different instruments. There’s a bit of trickery involved for this one, because the instruments I want to use are two different Pianoteq settings, and Pianoteq doesn’t really support keyboard splits. But luckily Pianoteq works as a plugin, meaning you can control it from other software. So I just fire up Reaper, plug in two copies of Pianoteq, add MIDI CC Mapper X and stir, and now my left hand is playing an Erard piano coming out of the left speaker, and my right hand is playing the same notes on a Bechstein coming out of the right speaker.

Next up is the tuning system. K uses a complex variation on the theme of just intonation, following on from ideas of the wonderfully creative Harry Partch. For a few decades now, Scala has been the industry standard for working with different tuning systems in computer music. The scala file format is a simple text file: you can literally type in a list of frequencies into your favourite text editor, and load them up into any software that understands the scala format. This includes Pianoteq. But I was after something more complex: rather than a fixed tuning system, I wanted to know what it sounds like when the piece drifts between tunings.

Thinking about this a few months ago, I could invent some rather complicated ways of making the tuning change gradually during a piece, but it wasn’t going to be easy. But luckily, just in the last few months, Pianoteq version 7 has brought in an interesting new feature. They’ve added a “morphing slider”, which will gradually move the sound from one setting to another, covering all the in-between effects. A lot of people are using it to make something that sounds not quite like a harpsichord, not quite like a piano, but with features of both. But it works on the tuning settings too!

So, back to minimalism and just intonation, or “if you liked this piece then you might also like…”. The first minimalist piece I remember hearing was John Adams’s China Gates. Not too long, just a little bit of minimalism so you can see if you like it. Adams followed up with Phyrgian Gates, to give you the full half-hour hypnotic experience. Then there’s Steve Reich’s piano phase, normally done by two pianists, but this performance is something like how a single performer would do K in a live concert. And there are much longer minimalist pieces out there, including orchestral music and operas.

Alternative tuning systems have a longer and more complex history, covering renaissance music, barbershop quartet singing and much more, but pianos aren’t well represented in this history, being so hard to retune. One of the earliest “weird tuning” piano pieces is the Three Quarter Tone Pieces by Charles Ives. In very different vein, I’m grateful to Dylan for introducing me to the string quartets of Ben Johnson (no link, because there are a lot of them, so just get out there and search!) and James Tenney’s Critical Band — not so much a tuning system as an exploration of how we perceive similar and different pitches.

There’s a whole world of different musics out there, and years of fun to be had exploring them. Please do leave a comment and let me know what else you’ve found!