bitKlavier: Expanding Musicianship bit by bit
Jai Raman, a sixth-grade student at the New School for Music Study, was not excited to study Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude in C Minor, BWV 999. When he began the piece with instructor Kristin Cahill, Jai was quite adamant that he had no desire to play the music of Bach, or any composer prior to Brubeck. Jai thrives on jazz and contemporary music and, at one point, remarked, "This piece is so boring. How am I supposed to make it sound interesting when it is all the same?"
In response, Kristin asked Jai to analyze the prelude harmonically and explore shaping the music based on moments of tension and resolution by assigning colors to repetitions and deviations, shading desired effects with crayons.
As he was learning the Prelude, Jai was participating in a musicianship course for children on a new digital keyboard instrument, bitKlavier. The course was offered through Legacy Arts International, an organization in Princeton, New Jersey founded by Cristina Altamura. Princeton University professor and composer Dan Trueman conceived of and built this open-source instrument using algorithms to create software.1 While this terminology may sound intimidating, bitKlavier is readily accessible by connecting a laptop or iPad (with the downloaded software) to a digital piano with a USB cable. The audio product of this partnership projects through speakers or headphones.2 One need not have a back- ground in computer music or technology to use bitKlavier. (See video of Dan Trueman, inventor of bitKlavier, and Adam Sliwinski explaining the bitKlavier preparations.)
Interestingly, Dan is not a pianist; his background is in physics, composition, and the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. While Dan had not necessarily intended bitKlavier for piano pedagogy, Adam Sliwinski (of So Percussion) and we (Kristin Cahill and Cristina Altamura) realized this instrument offered numerous possibilities for students. To foster this exploration, we prepared a concert consisting of bitKlavier repertoire with a group of children.
For that concert, rather than learning a new piece, Jai reinvigorated the Bach Prelude by digitally building a setting of metronomes to drive the bass and adding sustained, pedal-tone effects on tonic and dominant notes, igniting a whole new version without disturbing Bach's rhythmic or harmonic structure. After preparing and performing his settings on bitKlavier, Kristin noticed a complete change in her student's attitude toward approaching this piece on an acoustic piano. Jai said that bitKlavier allowed him to appreciate the overall scope, and that he felt as if each of his ten fingers were various members of a Baroque orchestra, all on one keyboard. Perhaps most importantly, he was excited about learning other pieces by Bach.
bitKlavier embodies three main preparations: Nostalgic, Synchronic, and Tuning. One of Dan's many influences in devising these preparations was John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes, which utilize a prepared piano filled with screws, nails, and other materials to generate novel percussive textures and sounds. Whereas preparing a piano for a performance of Cage's works takes hours of meticulous measuring and placement of objects, Dan's three preparations are readily available and malleable. bitKlavier facilitates improvisation, rhythmic games and drills, and reimagination of existing repertoire, in addition to the performance and study of existing bitKlavier repertoire (located in galleries in the software).
The Nostalgic preparation exemplifies an essential expressive aspect missing on the acoustic keyboard. Upon the release of a note or group of notes, sound blossoms rather than decays, creating a vivid reflection. Pianists remember, not forget, their initial tonal production of a note. Using a keymap he designed himself, twelve-year-old Jai chose to highlight certain quarter notes in the left hand for nostalgic lengthening while keeping other notes at their indicated values, which allowed for a lush basso continuo.
Whether pianists are performing a piece already written for bitKlavier or building their own nostalgic settings from scratch, they can explore how nostalgic tones can behave as waves. For example, upon release of a half note, the nostalgia can last for two beats, but it is also possible to build other ratios such as half or double the note value of the initial note to attain a desired underlying texture. In addition, pianists can experiment with the expressive timbre of a note's release, determining where the growth should peak versus taper within the wave.
Pedagogically speaking, the nostalgic feature refines listening and precision of technique. Students learn to focus their ears farther and understand how energy is carried over through rests and long notes. Treatment of this preparation requires meticulous counting and a keen awareness of when fingers release keys. This is the ideal complement to a pianist's technique as one still needs to be attentive to the quality of attack, but will experience a precise playback of the tonal color as the note releases. This awareness valuably transfers in approaching the music of Haydn and other Classical and Baroque compositions, where the abundance of rests of every length are not just a rhythmic device but contribute to the compositional musical structure. Students often overlook rests, particularly in the left hand, when preparing such textures.
The Synchronic preparation embeds tonal metronomes that are triggered by the performer. Built into a score or exercise, it compels players to synchronize with pulsing tones instead of a dull mechanical click. This not only provides rhythmic support but also promotes an artistically satisfying sense of meter. Musicians can design their own metronomes and can even place metronome beats on an individual note or group of notes rather than an entire piece.
Rhythm exercises emerge and creativity is enhanced with exploration of synchronic preparations. For instance, a student can build a metronome map in F major in the bass line while improvising in the treble line. The student can instantly switch the metronome to a D minor tonality just by changing chords on the keyboard. Whereas a traditional metronome does not compromise for phrasing and minute tempo nuances, bitKlavier metronomes are malleable and bend with rubato and phrasing choices. Dan Trueman describes this feature as "part ode to the metronome, and part revenge against the metronome."3
One exciting feature of the bitKlavier metronome is its ability to reflect dances from around the world in asymmetrical meters. For instance, Dan designed a telespringar metronome for his composition, Hurra.4 This Norwegian dance contains three long-medium-short uneven beats that reflect the choreography of the telespringar footsteps. Students often view time signatures and metronomes as rigid and non-musical. A creative activity could consist of building an asymmetrical metronome and having students improvise over it to add more complexity and refinement to their sense of pulse.
Consider how long it takes a technician to tune a piano. Moreover, a traditional keyboard cannot change its tuning from piece to piece. If one wanted to prepare a program comparing different temperaments from a group of Baroque composers, one would need several keyboards. bitKlavier's Tuning feature contains a plethora of historical temperaments as well as capabilities to explore tuning systems from around the world. Tuning can change at the drop of a key within a piece, or even a group of notes.5 High schooler Karim Homsi, a Syrian refugee and course participant, explored tuning settings for the bitKlavier concert as he composed an original piece inspired by his home country. An important part of his compositional process on bitKlavier was to incorporate sounds and nuances from Syria's Eastern musical system.
Unlike string, brass, or wind players, pianists are not accustomed to responding to orchestral tuning or participating in the process. Dan's experience with the Hardanger fiddle and its use of scordatura is a rich expressive contribution to the tuning feature. Ears can open and expand with exposure to various tunings, and students can develop an appreciation for a multiple set of temperaments, and their subtleties rather than the limited ones they hear at home or in lessons.
Another participant in the bitKlavier concert was Cristina's student, Christopher Niforatos. He was born with three fingers on one hand and two on the other, and doctors said that playing the piano would be very difficult. Legacy Arts commissioned a composer, Nate May, to write a piece for the then five-year-old Christopher. After seeing video footage of Christopher noodling with the Beethoven Für Elise theme, which was easy for him to play because it starts with half steps, Nate inverted the opening figure to create a piece called Fuzzy Fuzzy Fish. Adam Sliwinski then created a setting on bitKlavier using the nostalgic preparation to provide an underwater sounding environment for the melody, turning the notes into little waves. Christopher enjoys playing this piece on the piano, but learning it on bitKlavier deepened his imagination and allowed him to extract more sound than his fingers could on the piano.
The different types of preparations are useful in helping students learn to actively listen throughout a score. bitKlavier prevents students from disengaged, passive performing because the additional settings force them to focus on and manage more than what is typical on a traditional piano.
Interestingly, playing on bitKlavier can be similar to performing with an orchestra. Many times, there is so much occurring sonically that soloists must rely on visual patterns and continue to sing their parts internally when, for example, horns are overpowering the piano.
Students can develop a fascination with composing and improvisation once they learn how to create settings on bitKlavier. It can be a first step in overcoming the sometimes intimidating process of writing music by drawing attention to decisions about color palettes and textures. Then, writing the notes becomes the vehicle for that sound world. Jai, the student who built settings for his Bach Prelude, had an enormous increase of self-esteem that came from investigating the instrument and making decisions on how to alter the piece using knowledge from his lesson. Whereas lessons on the acoustic piano are more teacher directed, on bitKlavier, Jai initiated artistic decisions about his interpretation and enjoyed the role technology played in the process.
bitKlavier can also be used as a tool for transition between levels for students whose reading does not match playing skills, and vice versa. Students may have stellar technical skills, for example, but this facility must be accompanied by a highly developed ear. The nostalgic preparation can slow them down as they wait for notes to bloom and resolve. The opposite is true for students (perhaps late beginners or adults) who can read well, but technique is insufficient for more advanced pieces that match their emotional development. bitKlavier can provide these students a fulfilling musical experience until further technical competencies are attained.
Pianists rely on years of training to create colors through articulation, dynamic shadings, stylistic decisions, pedal, and other aspects that transcend the instrument in an acoustic landscape. This involves a conscientious mastery of control of the combinations of major and minor muscle groups throughout the body in tandem with intellect and imagination. bitKlavierists work in the digital realm but also make decisions about articulation and dynamics. However, the primary focus is the mastery of composite listening, time management, and negotiating moving parts in orchestrations, not unlike the skills a conductor or chamber music artist employs. The computer program is the ensemble facilitator as it reacts to a performer's timing, attacks, releases, and dynamic shadings.
The experience of performing and teaching on bitKlavier is enhancing pedagogical and compositional conventions internationally. Dan Trueman's Hardanger fiddle and Adam Sliwinski's percussion backgrounds are central in facilitating novel ways of approaching the keyboard and, in the process, developing a new practice for performers and composers. bitKlavier does not replace the acoustic piano but rather cultivates innovative pedagogical and artistic experiences that enrich our experiences as musicians.
1 Mike Mulshine, a Princeton University graduate, was instrumental in designing the algorithms and various additional features with Dan Trueman for bitKlavier.
3 Dan Trueman on '120bpm'," Chicago Symphony Orchestra, accessed on March 24, 2020, csosoundsandstories.org/dan-trueman-on-120bpm/.
4 Mikroetudes for Prepared Digital Piano, ManyArrowsMusic.
5 Adaptive tuning, which Dan explored in his bitKlavier pieces Didymus and Scales Within Sliding Scales, allows groups of notes to drift up or down in tuning as they repeat. It is interesting to note that Dan has spoken about his instrument building and compositional processes as often occurring simultaneously.
CRISTINA ALTAMURA is a highly sought after pianist and teacher based near Princeton, NJ. She is the founder of Legacy Arts International. A Fulbright Fellow to Italy, she is currently writing a book about Franco Scala's International Imola Piano Academy.
KRISTIN CAHILL is on the faculty at the New School for Music Study and has taught and performed in the United States and Spain. She is a member of the RCM College of Examiners and has presented at MTNA and NCKP.