An injury led musician Ólafur Arnalds to design self-playing pianos and along the way, new creative possibilities.
I am in Ólafur Arnalds’ studio at the very edge of Reykjavík’s old harbour. The musician sits at a grand piano, while two uprights stretch along the opposite wall. At a glance, the instruments seem ordinary. Then Ólafur plays three notes on the grand—and suddenly the two uprights respond with shimmering textures like musical drops of rain.
Inside the upright pianos, attached to every note, are tiny motors. Controlling them is a software program built from scratch. Together, they form a new instrument, able to respond in unexpected ways to what a human hand plays, and also play music it cannot.
Playing with Impossibilities
Ólafur begins by telling me about the origin of the idea. “I hurt my back really badly and lost feeling in my fingers on one hand. I thought I could never play piano again. I had been touring with Ryuichi Sakamoto, a Japanese composer, and he had these self-playing pianos so I thought it would be cool to make a good thing out of a bad thing. Not just as a crutch, but to make something out of the fact that I couldn’t really play scales anymore.” While he eventually recovered, Ólafur’s idea grew into a brand-new instrument, creating fresh possibilities for the composer and his listeners.
After drawing up the concept himself, Ólafur enlisted Icelandic musician and programmer Halldór Eldjárn to create the software that would make it possible. Halldór built an application from scratch allowing Ólafur to control each note on the player pianos individually, manipulating how they respond to his playing.
Process and Product
The software impacts Ólafur’s creative process. “What’s interesting to me is that normally when you play an instrument like the piano, you press the note C, and it sounds. Nothing unexpected really happens. But with this software, I press a note and it becomes something else. The auditory feedback you’re getting is changing and that’s changing your creative, intuitive thinking as well.”
Ólafur compares the process to jazz improvisation. “When I studied drums, we were always taught one of the most basic things in playing in a jazz group is you have to listen and react to everyone else, so when the trumpet player is doing a solo and he does a “da-da-daa” rhythm, probably in my next bar I will do that a little bit on the snare. It’s the same for the pianos. Instead of working with other people I’ve just taken parts of me and put them out there. And they might do something unexpected and I have to react to that. So it’s kind of like creating a very silly one-man band.”
The Sound of Music
Though his player pianos are innovative, Ólafur points out he’s not the first person to make a new instrument in order to create new sounds. “Technology has always come before music. Nobody was writing piano music before there was a piano. We wouldn’t have started writing rock music without the electric guitar. We have always been hugely dependent on technology, even before computers, to create new sounds.”
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