Following nerve damage, Icelandic composer/producer/musician was unable to play the piano. With his ‘Ghost Pianos’, he gets that ability back, through intelligent custom software and mechanical pianos.

It’s moving to hear him tell the story (to the CNN viral video series) – with, naturally, the obligatory shots of Icelandic mountains and close-up images of mechanical pianos working. No complaints:

This frames accessibility in terms any of us can understand. Our bodies are fragile, and indeed piano history is replete with musicians who lost the original use of their two hands and had to adapt. Here, an accident caused him to lose left hand dexterity, so he needed a way to connect one hand to more parts.

And in the end, as so often is the case with accessibility stories and music technology, he created something that was more than what he had before.

With all the focus on machine learning, a lot of generative algorithmic music continues to work more traditionally. That appears to be the case here – the software analyzes incoming streams and follows rules and music theory to accompany the work. (As I learn more about machine learning, though, I suspect the combination of these newer techniques with the older ones may slowly yield even sharper algorithms – and challenge us to hone our own compositional focus and thinking.)

I’ll try to reach out to the developers, but meanwhile it’s fun squinting at screenshots as you can tell a lot. There’s a polyphonic step sequencer / pattern sequencer of sorts in there, with some variable chance. You can also tell in the screen shots that the pattern lengths are set to be irregular, so that you get these lovely polymetric echoes of what Olafur is playing.

Of course, what makes this most interesting is that Olafur responds to that machine – human echoes of the ‘ghost.’ I’m struck by how even a simple input can do this for you – like even a basic delay and feedback. We humans are extraordinarily sensitive to context and feedback.

The music itself is quite simple – familiar minimalist elements. If that isn’t your thing, you should definitely keep watching so you get to his trash punk stage. But it won’t surprise you at all that this is a guy who plays Clapping Music backstage – there’s some serious Reich influence.

You can hear the ‘ghost’ elements in the reent release ‘ekki hugsa’, which comes with some lovely joyful dancing in the music video:

re:member debuted the software:

There is a history here of adapting composition to injury. (That’s not even including Robert Schumann, who evidently destroyed his own hands in an attempt to increase dexterity.)

Paul Wittgenstein had his entire right arm amputated following World War I injury, commissioned a number of works for just the left hand. (There’s a surprisingly extensive article on Wikipedia, which definitely retrieves more than I had lying around inside my brain.) Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is probably the best-known result, and there’s even a 1937 recording by Wittgenstein himself. It’s an ominous, brooding performance, made as Europe was plunging itself into violence a second time. But it’s notable in that it’s made even more virtuosic in the single hand – it’s a new kind of piano idiom, made for this unique scenario.

I love Arnalds’ work, but listening to the Ravel – a composer known as whimsical, crowd pleasing even – I do lament a bit of what’s been lost in the push for cheery, comfortable concert music. It seems to me that some of that dark and edge could come back to the music, and the circumstances of the composition in that piece ought to remind us how necessary those emotions are to our society.

I don’t say that to diss Mr. Arnalds. On the contrary, I would love to hear some of his punk side return. And his quite beautiful music aside, I also hope that these ideas about harnessing machines in concert music may also find new, punk, even discomforting conceptions among some readers here.

Here’s a more intimate performance, including a day without Internet:

And lastly, more detail on the software:

Meanwhile, whatever kind of music you make, you should endeavor to have a promo site that is complete, like this – also, sheet music!

olafurarnalds.com

Previously:

The KellyCaster reveals what accessibility means for instruments