The sonic ‘earthquake’ of the new Spirio piano
The most ambitious application yet of Steinway’s new digital piano, Spirio r, delivers stunning levels of sound and color in the new CD release of The Richter Scale, an hour-long keyboard drama written by well-known German composer and pianist Boris Bergmann.
One passage on the CD (Heresy 030) features a cadenza so dense and overpowering that Chinese pianist Ji Liu says it frightened the audience when he played it in China recently. It simply “cannot not be played by the human hand alone”, he says.
For the first time, the Spirio has been configured on a Steinway D grand to enable four-hand pieces to be played by two hands. The secondo score is first recorded in playback mode then combined with the live primo part. Liu is the live player who has to coordinate and fuse the two.
Liu calls it a “crazy idea” but adds light-heartedly, “I am a crazy person myself and I always do crazy things musically. So it fits my own taste quite well.” Executive producer Eric Fraad says the man-machine concept “enhanced and multiplied the immense power of Ji’s playing”.
Composer Bergmann hails the Spirio project as “the reconciliation of science and art,” one of his long-term objectives in music. He says he spent five years of concentrated work – and covid-related delays -- leading up to the CD.
Full album is available online here:
Bergmann, an accomplished pianist, acknowledges that he was unsure of his ability to play his difficult score, and helped recruit the virtuoso pianist Liu, based in London, to master the integration of the two parts.
I took Bergmann’s advice and listened to the full composition from start to finish to best feel the gathering emotional turbulence. I was gripped by the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and percussive explosions along the way. By any measure, the collaboration is a great success.
Combining the tracks meant facing a new challenge for Ji. As he played his score, the player piano keys bounced under his hands, sometimes doubling notes with his own fingers. The keyboard moved under his hands almost like a micro-earthquake.
The piece is similar to an episodic film, each of the 11 movements interpreting the stages of an earthquake and its aftermath.
Bergmann does not hesitate to apply traces of past repertoire. Schooled in the Darmstadt School of contemporary composition, he inserts subtle references to existing works throughout the movements. Colon Nancarrow’s influence is apparent in the cadenza and references to Schumann, Schubert , Liszt, Beethoven and Bach and John Cage recur unexpectedly.
The CD opens with beautiful, peaceful, piano work with ominous overtones and contrapuntal elements, slowly building in power, followed by a restful Epilogue. The titles help the listener feel the physical effects of tectonic shifts. Typical themes go from “A Planet’s Pulse” to “Seismograph” to “Expecting the Big One” and “Reversing the Mississippi”.
One of my favorites is Movement 7, “Dance of Things” that musically depicts being surprised in an office during a tremor. In the accompanying booklet, producer Fraad describes it as a kind of choreography of furniture and objects where “everything rolls, wobbles and swings … strangely synchronized, almost like a toy ballet.” In this clip, the feel of floating among the debris control is effectively realized.
In Track 9, the music depicts the giant earthquake that struck North America in the early 19th century. Witnesses at the time reported that the Mississippi River was disturbed to such a degree that is flowed backward for a short time. The devilish cadenza, originally suggested by Fraad, appears in this movement. In this clip, the “water music” is perfectly rendered.
Track 10 also broke new ground. It is the only part not composed by Bergmann. Titled “The Voyager Golden Record”, it takes the music aboard the Voyager spacecraft, Bach’s Prelude in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 2) and plays it backward. Bergmann made his own arrangement using the Spirio mechanics. How would aliens hear the music in the adaptation, he wonders. The late Charles Richter might well approve. He once wrote a science fiction film script that was “wild, erratic and full of exuberant imagination”, writes Bergmann in the program notes.
The project seems to have a life of its own, producing multiple permutations and possible further development. It was first conceived by Bergmann as a two-piano version, setting up a kind of “piano battle” between the two players. The Spirio tecnology made the current one-player version possible. Bergmann has since written a two-hand version and will perform it solo himself. An orchestration and a full-fledged drama onstage have been considered. Meanwhile, the Spirio project came to fruition and a new set of digital remixes will go live April 4 on Spotify, Apple Music and deezer. An earlier collection, dubbed “premixes” by Fraad, are already available on digital platforms. Fraad’s term refers to mixes in advance of the basic “four-hand” CD.
Generally speaking, Fraad says, the earthquake metaphor is intended to connect with “what is happening socially, environmentally and politically in today’s world.” Bergmann goes further. He calls it a depiction of the “violence of fate”. He wanted to demonstrate “man‘s ability to confront the blind forces with love, strength and imagination”.
In a tragic coincidence that provided further topicality, an earthquake last month in Turkey, Iran and Syria killed some 48,000 people and reshaped the tectonic plates under three countries. Listening to the CD, one sees images of such recent realities.
Indeed, Bergmann writes in his program notes that earthquakes remain a “fascinating field” of science but they also bring “great suffering to many people”. His Epilogue is dedicated “To the Beloved Ones”, earthquake victims and their surviving families and friends.
COLLABORATION WITH STEINWAY
Steinway, eager to demonstrate the potential of Spirio technology, worked hand-in-hand with the Richter Project for the past few years, providing technical support and opening its facilities to speed development of the three versions. In 2019, Steinway provided halls in China where Ji recorded the Spirio “four-hand” version. Ji kept in touch with Fraad and Bergmann via Zoom and email in the runup to the recording, a key milestone for the three partners. The score had been “sitting around in a drawer for two years”, stymied by the covid pandemic, Bergmann recalls.
The pandemic interfered periodically with the plans to launch the three versions. A premiere European performance was scheduled at Steinway in Berlin but Ji, the only pianist ready to perform it, was caught in China’s lockdown. He was on a concert tour and managed to perform the Richter Scale Spirio version in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. A restricted performance for friends took place at Steinway Hall in London.
Concert and recording dates had to be postponed and cancelled multiple times. In the summer of 2021, Fraad and Bergmann began to doubt whether the project could ever be realized. “We feared that at some point the work would be lost for everyone involved and especially for Ji,” who had given three Richter concerts in China along with some of his own with his own repertoire. But in the summer of 2021, Bergmann made an almost desperate attempt to help Ji record the piece after all. And he did indeed succeed and was able to download the raw recordings from Shanghai despite the lockdown.
As the completed recording takes hold in the piano world, the Richter Project’s creativity and originality may well inspire others to experiment with the potential of the Spirio.
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