Electromagnetically-Prepared Piano: interview with Per Bloland

Composer and current SEAMUS Member At Large Per Bloland discusses the genesis and evolution of the EMPP, from its inception at CCRMA through various stages of development, up through its most recent incarnation as the focus of a research project at IRCAM. Bloland responded to the following questions, posed by the editor Steven Ricks, via email.

EMPP

How did the idea for the “Electromagnetically-Prepared Piano” occur to you?

Back when I was serious about my trumpet playing I would, as you might expect, spend many hours in practice rooms, most of which had pianos. I started to notice and really enjoy the way the high undamped strings of the piano responded to my playing, and began holding down the damper pedal while practicing. This led to an early piece of mine, Thingvellir, for solo trumpet, in which the trumpet plays into a microphone connected to a small amplifier. The amp is placed under a grand piano, as close to the soundboard as possible, and the damper pedal is propped down allowing the strings to vibrate sympathetically. The result is similar to a long-tailed reverb, but has its own quite distinct quality. Luckily at the time I was blissfully unaware of Berio’s trumpet Sequenza, or I might have scrapped the whole thing. I liked the effect though, and started to think about how to make the whole system louder and improve the detail of control.

During my first year at Stanford I took a class at CCRMA, and happened to be discussing some ideas with some of the other CCRMA-lites at lunch one day. I mentioned two possibilities – either placing electromagnets over piano strings, or attaching many tiny speakers to the frame at the nut, each pointing to a string complex (the speaker idea, by the way, terrible idea). Steven Backer was there, and became very interested. He immediately saw possibilities for working with electromagnets that had never occurred to me. I had been thinking of the EBow model, in which there is little control over timbre. He realized that supplying the electromagnets with an arbitrary audio signal (rather than using feedback, as the EBow’s do) would open a huge range of timbral possibilities. He also knew of another student, Edgar Berdahl, who was working on similar issues at the time, and began discussing the project with him. This led to a fantastic and rather rushed collaboration, the result of which was the Electromagnetically-Prepared Piano (EMPP), version 1.0. I was in the process of working on a piece with a set performance date (an ASCAP/SEAMUS commission, it so happens), and decided that the piece would utilize the yet-to-be invented device. Once we had one electromagnet working I was able to glean some idea of what to expect. It was, nonetheless, all rather speculative until the device was fully built. Which it was, I am happy to say, in plenty of time for the performance.

What grants/resources/individuals made its creation possible?bloland-at-laptop  

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