Monday, September 17, 2018

Recently I performed in a really fun concert in Chestertown's premiere arts performance space. Underneath the radar of it all was the deliberation of something, to which my performance played a bit part. The time has come for this organization  to replace it's piano, which had been nursed along for as long as possible, and recently laid to rest. The fork in the road for the decision makers is whether to jump on the electronic music bandwagon and purchase a digital keyboard as opposed to a grand piano. What they are evaluating specifically is a state of the art "hybrid" piano, which provides the mechanical action to create the experience of playing an acoustic piano, while using digital technology to create the sound. There are practical reasons, reasonable considerations, on their own, to make a move to the digital hybrid, along with valid, if not necessary reasons (depending on how the organization views itself) for a performance venue such as this to have an acoustic piano.
This concert was the trial run for the hybrid piano, so the organization rented one for the show, and I was, in effect, the musician providing the demo for others to evaluate. A funny position for me to be in. I am quite open in not enjoying electronic keyboards, even as I (am compelled to) play them often. They serve a necessary purpose, but from the position of a pianist, they lack one feature that is necessary for me (to most authentically commune with the music): acoustic vibration. When the felt hammer hits the string on the piano, the string responds by vibrating, in a complex arrangement that contains and creates the sounds and combinations of sounds which we process as (acoustic) musical pitches.

The science of acoustics is not my field. But acoustic vibration, which can be felt and heard as sound, is the pallet from which I paint. My process of music making is like an interactive response with my environment, even as I am creating it. When I play an electronic keyboard, I'll respond to it (the sounds created) differently than an acoustic piano. Without going into too much theoretical detail, an electronically generated sound throws me into a more polyphonic approach, where acoustic vibration often sends me into more harmonic density. And this isn't just me, it appears. Whenever I discuss this issue with another (experienced professional) musician and make the assertion that Bill Evans (meaning his impressionistic harmonic approach) would not have happened if he only ever played a Fender Rhodes (the only electronic keyboard available for much of his career), it always finds agreement. In a very real way, the substance of the acoustic sounds themselves are altered when electronically replicated. And as you can imagine, when you alter a cause, you can redirect an effect. Years ago, when I began playing with a regional jazz group, the first few jobs required me to bring a keyboard. The first time we had a gig with an acoustic piano (and a mediocre one at that), after a few tunes, the bass player (a very accomplished and knowledgeable musician) asked me if I had worked out new (chord) voicings. I responded, "No, this is the was I really play". He understood.    

The larger issue of replacing a connection to the physical world with an electronically based replication has me concerned for what the long term implications may be. And it isn't limited to music, though music remains my focus in this piece. In a digital world, music has become more of a sharing of information and less a communion with natural vibrations (at least in some areas).  It can still access our emotions and make us feel things, but in the end remains a simulation; a virtual reality walk in the woods, complete with artificial breezes and heat lamps and recorded nature sounds. There is a reason that we are drawn to walk on the beach, or in the mountains, or commune with nature in general. My experience with the piano each morning as I sit down to practice (commune) is much the same as that, in a very real way. For a time, I was forced to practice on an electronic keyboard at home. I survived it, even grew musically, and if that's all I would ever experience, I wouldn't know any better. But I would be on an altered path, one that I'm not sure wouldn't point away from an ultimate source (or at least obscure it) rather than point toward it. After all, isn't everything in nature/creation vibratory, ultimately (according to science)? I can't say that I have answers at this point. But I do have lingering questions. 


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