International Piano is a unique bi-monthly publication written for and loved by pianists and discerning fans of piano music all over the world.

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Twenty of the world’s most famous pianos brought together in new work

31 July 2014

Matthew Herbert’s 20 Pianos will be performed this Saturday (2 August) at Glasgow Concert Halls as part of the New Music Biennial, a celebration of new music in the UK led by the PRS for Music Foundation and linked to the closing weekend of the Commonwealth Games.

This new piece features the sounds of 20 pianos – from abandoned and ruined instruments to historic pieces such as an early square piano used by CPE Bach. The world’s most expensive piano is included – the upright Steinway used by John Lennon for composing Imagine, now encased in a Perspex shield in a museum in Arizona. From these recordings, including significant differences in the room acoustics and recording qualities, Herbert has created a new instrument, built by his colleague Yann Seznec.

Herbert is a celebrated composer, pianist, DJ and producer. Sound is his medium, and the sampler keyboard his main instrument. Recorded sound is, of course, separate from the vibrating object or body that makes it, so one of the first creative choices in using a sampled sound is whether to acknowledge the source – as a kind of ‘sound image’ – or to treat the it as abstract. The gap between the two positions offers a creative tension and an invitation for listeners to use their imagination, and it’s this that Herbert works with.

We’re all familiar with the distinction between a piano, a digital piano and a keyboard. Sampler keyboards basically use a piano-style keyboard as an interface for computer-stored sounds; in theory, they could just as easily be controlled and ‘played’ using a qwerty keyboard. 20 Pianos is fascinating not least because it uses a hybrid instrument, a sampler keyboard with recordings of 20 real pianos. It’s neither a piano, a virtual piano, nor a keyboard ersatz piano. In a way, it’s all of these together, simultaneously.

The piece introduces the sound of each instrument, but – without spoiling it for those attending the show – the real surprises are the sounds Herbert’s created combining the pianos together into different composite instruments, a kind of ‘meta-piano’ if you like. To make the point clearly and dramatically, the keyboard has been created and integrated into an ordinary table, creating a coup de theatre, a visual illusion. The result is a fascinating illusion, 20 pianos conjured into a new instrument.

Ed McKeon co-runs Third Ear, an independent agency that specialises in new music. Third Ear commissioned 20 Pianos for the New Music Biennial

New Music Biennial: 20 Pianos by Matthew Herbert
Saturday 2 August, 4.45pm
City of Music Studio, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Free to attend

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