Isolation Commission and ACWC article

Isolation Commission

eJournal ACWC/AFCC SpringSummer 2020

Guest Performer Insights
A Newly Imagined Piano
Eve Egoyan

I am creating a body of work for a newly imagined piano that delves into the space between what a piano can do, and what I have always wished a piano could do. The core of these works is the live sound of the physical piano I am playing. But through the delicate intervention of technology, I test and tease)the edges of the piano’s natural sound, ultimately pushing it beyond the familiar into the impossible and extraordinary.

I am endeavouring to take the piano on a journey that is fully my own. In order for me to create for myself, I have had to deconstruct everything. The creation of a new sounding piano is a way for me to break from the past music I have heard for piano, and from how music written by others that I perform inhabits my body.

The work that most significantly shifted my interpretative practice is En amor duro and De puro amor, a two- hour long diptych, by Spanish/German composer Maria de Alvear. It is written in loose proportional notation where pitches are selected by the composer but where exact durations, voicing, and pedalling are left open. The score is a map which both challenges and invites its interpreter into a new type of dialogue, allowing room for the performer to adjust to the given acoustics of the performance space, the piano, and the shared energy between performer and audience.

This led me into an exploration of freer forms of notation that offer oblique guidance, suggestions, and pathways for me to follow and within which to express my own creativity.

I have always been particularly attracted to music written by pianist- composers. Their physical approach to the instrument is clearly embodied in their scores (and I feel, in a sense, as though I am wearing their body when I perform their work). For my own work, I am seeking to marry the visceral, sensually connected, deep engagement I find in improvisation with more considered structure and overall form.

In the past, instruments were built to the owner’s specifications. The creation of my new sounding piano follows this tradition. I am working with technology experts to enhance the acoustic piano’s capabilities.

To do this, I use a physical modelling synthesizer that allows me to manipulate all the physical variables that determine the sound character of an acoustic piano. This both allows for very precise replication of the sound of particular models of piano but also for extending the character of the sound of the piano outside its normal range. Because the acoustic piano triggers the modelled piano, and the acoustic and modelled sounds blend together, the modulations and extensions seem to emerge organically from within the piano’s natural acoustic sound.

In my interpretative practice, I listen deeply into the decay of the piano and make my interpretative decisions by listening between the attacks to the space between the notes. I am known for performing pieces where the decay or resonance is an intricate part of the composition.

With the physically modelled synthesized piano, I can, for example, make the virtual soundboard much more rigid, dramatically increasing the length of the sustain of struck notes so that they ring on almost to infinity. This allows me, through subtle manipulations of this impossible ‘ghost’ piano, to introduce apparent shifts in the dynamics, pitch, and timbre through the natural decay of the piano.

For me, it is like the piano is in conversation with another piano that is behaving impossibly. The modelled piano is able to make the acoustic piano sound like it is possible to do things that it actually can’t do. The piano is dreaming into what it wishes it can be.
Through the grant I received, I am able to hire specialists to create and customize a fluid and intuitive system for me to work within on a regular acoustic piano. We are developing a purely acoustic system to transcribe piano performance into computer signals in real-time using AI. I will also be working with an optical pickup system developed in the UK. We are also exploring and implementing alternative methods for me to control the parameters of the enhanced piano using a gyroscope to capture the pan, tilt, and nod of my head. In some instances, I would like to be able to inflect the sound with the same naturalness with which a shakuhachi flute player can fluidly shift pitch and timbre within a melodic line.

I am grateful to have received Canada Council funds to make this project possible. I am also very grateful for residencies at Avatar, Quebec City; at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music; and at CMMAS (Centre for Music and Sonic Arts) in Morelia, Mexico. As I write this article, I am interweaving and intermingling the enhanced and acoustic piano sounds in preparation of a programme of work to be premiered in January 2021.

Note: I wrote this article prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in all of our lives. I am still working on this project, though in isolation. The residency at CMMAS in Mexico was postponed, and technical development with parts of my team (my AI programmer and developers in the UK) are on hold. Working with the technology I have in hand, I am composing works along the lines described in this article. My hope is that the pieces will still be performed in January. I miss performing enormously and I look forward to the time when we can gather again and share listening together. Stay well.

Eve Egoyan is an internationally celebrated artist whose medium is the piano. She continually reinvents her relationship with her instrument through the creation and commissioning of new works which she has performed around the world. Trained as a classical pianist, Eve has followed her curiosity into the world of contemporary music since arriving in Toronto 30 years ago, inspired by an emerging generation of Toronto-based composers. Eve works to improve gender equity in the world of contemporary music performance as a performer and as a voice in the community. She is one of Canada’s primary ambassadors for Canadian music abroad.