The Resonant Piano

This is an idea for an invention. From time to time, I have these ideas, and worry that I might be missing my chance to make a gazillion dollars if I just talk about it openly and let someone else be the one to patent it. But most of the time I mention one of my … shhh, don’t tell anyone … “great inventions”, I am told “oh, someone’s done that already”. So it may be with this one. Whatever.  I’m going to just start writing this stuff down, because I think they’re cool ideas.  If you get rich off of one of my inventions, remember where you heard it from, and be fair about it, OK?

The piano is one of the favorite instruments of Western culture.  It has a keyboard of 88 keys, each one hitting a different set of strings when struck.  (The lowest bass notes have one string, and then some of the low notes have two, but most have three strings, so there are like some mondo huge number of strings in this instrument.)  Here’s how it works: There’s a damper on each set of strings to stop it from vibrating.  The damper is usually down, touching the strings, but when a key is struck, the damper lifts and a hammer hits this the set of strings, with a force proportional to the force with which the key was struck.  When the key comes back up (i.e. the player lifts his finger) the damper comes back down and once again stops that note.

There’s a pedal called the sustain pedal which lifts all the dampers as long as it’s held down. This means no notes are stopped.  The sound produced by striking a single key with the sustain pedal held down is much richer than when it’s not; that’s because all of the other strings are free to vibrate sympathetically with the note that is struck.  The piano, with its gazillion strings, has much more potential for sympathetic vibration than the sitar, that Indian instrument most known in the West for enriching its sound with sympathetic strings.

The problem with the sustain pedal is that if you play too many different notes with it held down, the sound gets muddier and muddier.  Music which uses the sustain pedal usually calls for pressing it again every measure or so to keep this under control.  So every measure, all the sympathetic vibrations are stopped.

This is where my new invention, the resonant piano, comes in. It has a mechanism very similar to a standard piano, but the dampers are all lifted off the strings (as if the sustain pedal was held down) in regular operation.  When a key is struck, the hammer hits the corresponding set of strings as usual. Then when the key is lifted, the damper comes down on the strings for that individual note and stops them from vibrating before lifting back up.

With this system, the strings which are actually struck with hammers are stopped, but sympathetically vibrating strings are never stopped.  The idea is that the sympathetically vibrating strings never reach a volume where they actually need to be damped, and stopping the strings which were actually struck is all that’s necessary.

A further conjecture is that during chord changes, the harmonics common to the previous and following chords will be especially emphasized, something I term transitional harmonics. Hmmm … I sense a new branch of music theory coming on …

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emusic album: Inside Grace Cathedral by Paul Horn with Stephen Kent

I wrote this sizable review of the album Inside Grace Cathedral by Paul Horn with Stephen Kent only to discover that I can only post a very short review there, apparently with with no paragraphs.

So, I’ll post my full review here:

I wanted to let people know that for most of the album, the track listings are off by one: so the 0:59 track 5 is actually “Kent Intro”, not track 4. Similarly, the 1:19 track 7 is really “Hedge Intro” and the 0:49 track 13 is “Kalimba Intro”. These tracks are strictly talking and may be omitted if you want to save yourself three downloads; there are other gaps in the concert anyway.

That said, Horn and Kent are both great musicians, so a good album is to be expected. Unlike Paul Horn’s other “Inside” albums, this is a live concert, and searching the net tells me this Grace Cathedral is in San Francisco and the concert is from October 7, 2005.

The first 4 tracks are Paul Horn playing solo flute in a manner similar to his other “Inside” albums.

In introducing Stephen Kent, Horn reveals that he first met him only several weeks prior. As they play together this kind of shows; it takes some exploration for them to really get into each others’ musical space. The first Horn/Kent duet is better than the second (track 12) because while the second introduces some percussion that Horn plays off of, in the first Kent coaxes a greater variety of sounds from his didgeridoo.

I hadn’t heard of Christopher Hedge before this album, but he certainly seems to be someone worth checking out.

Introducing Hedge (track 8), Horn says they will be doing live overdubbing. “We’ll build up a bed of sounds, and then we’ll play against it”.

That following piece (track 9) is in my opinion the weakest. It starts with some birdlike whistles and rattles which provide the looped base for the rest of the track. They are long loops that don’t provide a sense of rhythm, reminding me a bit of Brian Eno’s ambient landscapes of On Land.

In contrast I think that track 14, with Chris Hedge playing kalimba, is probably the best track. The kalimba playing is masterful, and Horn’s flute and sax, and Kent’s didg, blend perfectly.

The final track (is it Finale or Farewell?) involves audience participation: Horn has one half of the audience hum a note he provides with his flute, and the other half hums the note a fifth higher. They continue for the duration of the piece. It’s cool.

I’m torn whether to give this three or four stars. There are other works by both Horn and Kent you should probably get first (and probably other works by Hedge). Still, this is a very nice concert.

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