Piano v. synthesizer

by Rob Tiller

After several lessons, Olga, my new piano teacher, recently departed for Rumania for the summer, leaving me with a lot of musical ideas, but with no particular urgency to practice up for the next lesson. And so I found a sliver of time and energy to explore an area I’d been curious about for a while: musical technology and synthesizers.

My computing devices contain synthesizers and virtual studios, and after some casual experimenting I realized there’s a lot of potential for musical fun. Without any particular effort or expenditure, I have at my disposal musical tools that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars thirty years ago. But figuring out how to make them more expressive takes some time and energy.

My first objective was to make some techno dance music. It’s odd, I know, for a person with predominantly classical tastes, but I sometimes enjoy listening to this stuff when driving for fun. GarageBand, an Apple program, includes prefab loops that can be used for this purpose, and I soon had some sonic space that was reasonably entertaining. I then got curious about what else could be done, and started to experiment with non-pre-fab elements. It was sufficiently fun that I bought a cheap MIDI keyboard and a little wireless auxiliary speaker.

This was a significant step, because I have a strong prejudice against electronic keyboards. The interface looks like that of a real piano, which is deceptive, because the two instruments are very different. A great piano, like my Steinway grand, allows for a subtle connection between the human and the string. The basic technology is now antique (19th century), but still, they have thousands of parts and are said to be among the most complicated mechanical machines on earth. Each piano is also an individual, in a way that each electronic keyboard is not. The wood comes from particular trees that grew as they grew in a particular place during particular years.

A great piano has the capacity for nuance. I used to think of a key on the keyboard as similar to an on-off switch, but Olga persuaded me this is a mistake bordering on sacrilege. Her thing is to focus on nuances of touch and the associated nuances of sound. She hears details so tiny that it took a while for her to convince me they really existed, another period for me to begin perceiving them, and another period for me to begin to use them. It’s a little embarrassing to admit I was previously barely aware of this level of listening and touching, in spite of many years of making music.

Once you begin really listening hard at this level, the experience of music changes. There’s good news and bad news. It’s harder to reach a point of complete satisfaction with a performance, but at the same time the experience is richer and deeper. Anyhow, there’s no going back. Once your ears are opened, focused concentration on subtle nuances seems essential to any significant musical experience.

In revealing a level of this, Olga did a demonstration of various ways of touching C-5 for different colors of sound. One way she thinks of the touch is like dance, with the gesture of the hand choreographed to produce a particular color. Speaking of the subtle differences in sound produced by different gestures, she said (with a Russian accent), “I don’t know why it makes a difference. It just does. The piano is a mysterious instrument.”

Electronic keyboards are complicated, but somehow not mysterious. I have doubts that digital sound creation will ever be as personal and emotionally rich for me. But there is an amazing variety of things that the synthesizer can do. It’s different, and it’s good to change things up from time to time. So I’ll be experimenting, and see where it leads.