Music from Yesterday (for Korbi and Katie)

Music from Yesterday is constructed from three sources of sound fed into a mixer and recorded directly to audio cassette tape. This was a matter of practicality rather than an intentional aesthetic choice, because a mixer of some sort is required to bring certain sources of sound to the surface. Having never worked with tape recording before, I was unsure the quality of the audio would match that of a digital recording directly to my computer. To my surprise, the fidelity of the sound was actually quite good. I’m unsure to what extent the audio tape affects the sound, but I’m happy to have worked with the tape recorder and I imagine myself returning to it in the future.

An upright prepared piano and software synthesizer produce two of the three sources of sound; the third is a delay effect pedal that collects both audio signals and returns them into the mixer as feedback. All three sources were specifically prepared with the intention of juxtaposing different types of sound from different types of instruments.

The piano, of course, is entirely acoustical, so all of its sounds are captured on two microphones placed very close to the strings. I placed one on the piano lid and another inside, slightly above the hammers, in-between the hammers and the strings. A sequencer triggers the synthesizer, which is a software instrument included in Ableton. (I’m planning on spending greater time working with the sequencer’s CV capabilities with an analogue synthesizer in the future.)

It was my hope that a clear acoustic sound would contrast well with a clear digital sound, whose signals would be combined and returned by the delay pedal in a sort of collected soundscape. Ensuring the clarity of the digital sound is simple, but I looked to manufacture sounds from the piano that diverged considerably from existing software instruments by preparing it, placing just as much emphasis on the piano’s sound as the notes the piano plays.

The tradition of modifying the interior of a piano to create novel, almost foreign sounds, dates back to the early twentieth century when John Cage — a name now synonymous with experimental music — created the “prepared piano” in 1938 when he began composing specific instructions for placing different objects between piano strings at certain distances from the bridge. Cage wasn’t the first to reach inside a piano, but he certainly was the first to call for extensive preparations and make them integral to his music.

This idea was striking enough to encourage composers to make similar arrangements in their own music. Though most depart from Cage and make sounds far more approachable than those found in Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (perhaps the most important composition to date for the prepared piano), the tradition continues into popular music. Take this improvisation by Hauschka on NPR, which involves one of the more extensive preparations in contemporary popular music:

Nils Frahm also makes use of specially designed and prepared pianos, going so far as to commission his own, the “Una Corda.” The una corda is the soft pedal on the piano, but Frahm’s was designed to emphasize resonance while maintaining a soft tone found in a great deal of his music. His first album with the piano, Solo, is a series of improvisations that emphasize the instrument’s resonance and many of the sounds that accompany a piano’s playing, like the damper vibrating strings or the sounds of moving hammers.

Another lovely song that makes use of a prepared piano is A Wing Victory for the Sullen’s Minuet for a Cheap Piano:

Between Hauschka, Frahm, and MinuetMusic from Yesterday draws most inspiration from Minuet, both in terms of the sound of the piano and the melody it’s responsible for. Both songs use very simple music, but design the sound in such a way that its texture is complimentary and adds an interest that would not be present with a traditional, unaltered piano. Though some might dismiss this as a cheap way to get around playing a piano well, I prefer to think of the sound design as its own way of playing an instrument.

To return to Cage, it’s worth noting that his specifications can take hours to execute. The preparations here are very simple, but produce a distinct effect. By placing a paper towel over the strings and holding down the soft pedal throughout, the sound of the piano muted significantly. It produced several sounds I wasn’t anticipating, some of which were only audible when amplified by the microphones, like the sound of the dangling paper towel rubbing against the strings; such friction produces a very subtle humming tone, like running one’s fingers across a guitar string.

As I pointed out previously, the music that piano plays is very simple, which allowed for greater attention to be directed toward structuring the sound of the tones themselves. The highest note the piano plays is also the first key to the right of the paper towel whose strings aren’t covered. Similarly, the hammer striking the lowest string produces a slightly different sound because of a piece of packing tape affixed to the paper towel in front of it.

Structurally, the piano begins as the only source of sound. However the delay pedal is capturing the signal from the beginning, and its level is raised on the mixer once the piano begins to shift chords. This level increases considerably before the synthesizer enters. Once the sequencer is triggered and the synthesizer builds (whose sound is also being fed into the delay pedal) the song shifts from emphasizing the acoustic sounds to the digital sounds.

Once the feedback increases by a significant degree the audio signal drops suddenly and the sequencer plays by itself. It plays the same sequence, though it’s transposed twice, up and down a fifth. The synth’s textures are modified by changing the software’s parameters after mapping a control surface on the sequencer to Ableton. All signals are MIDI and sent via USB.

In terms of editing, the audio is EQ’d slightly, mostly to reduce mid-frequencies and remove some muddiness. Higher frequencies were also increased slightly to dedicate greater space to the ambient noise of the audio tape and the subtler sounds produced by the piano’s preparations. The final audio also benefits from compression and reverb.

Music from Yesterday is the first piece of music I’ve successfully executed that involves an acoustic piano and electronic instrument, as well as the first piece that’s involved a prepared piano. I’m hoping to realize other songs that call for similar arrangements.

Alternative take with emphasized soundscapes:

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One Response to Music from Yesterday (for Korbi and Katie)

  1. Pingback: In the Trees (solo prepared piano) | Alex Daly

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