Arts & Culture

The hidden resources of ‘the extended piano’

4 min read

Brian Kane’s composition “Another Cascando” sounds a bit like barking dogs at a construction site; Johannes Kreidler’s “Piano Piece #5” is reminiscent of distant artillery fire; and Hans Tutschku’s “Zellen – Linien” seems to include the sharp, high-pitched sounds of breaking glass.

And yet each of these musical pieces is performed by pianist Sebastian Berweck. How does he get such strange sounds from the instrument of Liszt and Chopin?

The afternoon before his Nov. 5 concert at Paine Hall, Berweck, one of the world’s foremost interpreters of contemporary music, gave a lecture/demonstration of what he calls “the extended piano.” Both the lecture and concert were co-sponsored by the Department of Music and Learning from Performers (Office for the Arts at Harvard).

Berweck defines his work as “getting past the original piano sound,” and, as he demonstrated, there are many ways of achieving this goal. Some are quite simple. For example, reaching into the piano and damping the strings with your finger while playing the corresponding key with the other hand will produce a kind of toneless, percussive crash. But how do you know which string to damp? Berweck showed his secret for navigating inside the piano. He color-codes the keys and strings with little round stickers.

You can also place glass balls of various sizes on top of the strings. These vibrate, producing a sort of buzz. A tennis ball dropped on the strings will cause the muffled boom of a distant explosion. You can pluck the strings or scrape them with your fingernail, or you can use an EBow, a device originally developed for the guitar that vibrates the strings electromagnetically.

But as Berweck cautioned, “The outside of the piano is robust, but the inside is very delicate, especially the dampers.” He advised his audience never to scrape the soft, copper-wrapped strings with a coin but only with a fingernail, to avoid touching the strings with your bare hands because of the danger of corrosion, and that if you must encase the strings with clay, pieces of kneaded art eraser are less harmful than Play-Doh.

Beyond these simple, hands-on methods of altering the piano’s sound is the almost infinite world of sound possible with electronics. Surrounded by wires, consoles, and open laptops, Berweck’s Steinway looked not so much like the proud quadruped of the traditional concert stage as a patient undergoing surgery. A video camera and a pair of microphones on tripods peered into its interior like a gaggle of interns observing an operation.

There are two basic ways of using electronics to extend the piano’s range. One is for the performer to play along with a recording. The difficulty with this method is synchronization. Berweck demonstrated how the problem was solved in one of his performances by having the composer count off the beats through Berweck’s earphone.

The other method is to program a computer to alter the sound produced by the live instrument as it is being played.

“This way, you have a real interaction between the computer and the player,” Berweck said.

That sort of interaction is characteristic of Tutschku’s piece “Zellen – Linien.” Tutschku, the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of Music and Director of the Harvard University Studio for Electroacoustic Composition, spoke about the importance of performers like Berweck to contemporary composers.

“He’s a very devoted interpreter who likes to push the instrument in unusual ways. He has collaborated closely with composers to write new pieces for him, and this is very exciting for composers. I can’t conceive of anyone playing one of my pieces who knows only Chopin.”