Isolation Pianos (1): Alex White’s ‘Transductions’

Monday 29 June 2020

Alex White’s album Transductions came out on Room 40 early this month and I’m still getting over it. As a huge fan of pianos, real or virtual, being pushed beyond the physical dimensions of human playing, this set really spoke to me. It’s more than the simple surreal thrill of the instrument playing something otherwise technically impossible; it’s hearing the piano discovering new means of expression when considered separately from traditional means of performance. Nancarrow’s late player piano studies set a standard which later musicians have used as an insipration and a challenge.

“The confluence of the computer sequencer, the sampler, and Conlon Nancarrow’s work was a stimulus for many composers in the late 80s and early 90s. (Note to postgraduate students no. 2: A thesis exploring the many pieces written for computer controlled piano sounds in this period.)” – so wrote Warren Burt in 2000, reviewing Tristram Cary’s The Impossible Piano. People are still doing it today. While Nancarrow was demonstrating polyrhythms generated by temporal ratios, and Cary was exploring wider compositional concerns, Burt’s own 39 Dissonant Etudes used sequencing software to generate its own rhythmic and melodic material within broad parameters. Both “piano” and “player” operated largely autonomously, producing music outside of any overriding compositional considerations.

White’s Transductions play out in a similar tradition, but with technological advances deliciously subverted. While Burt and Cary had to work with mid-90s soundfonts and personal computers, White gets a real live Disklavier – a computer-controlled piano – and hooks it up to an analogue synthesiser. The synth’s voltage signals are translated into computer-readable MIDI data for the piano to play. Just typing that last sentence was a kick. Essentially, Transductions is a set of eight pieces for analogue electronics, oscillators and feedback, with all of the complexities and instability that implies, played through a piano instead of loudspeakers. It’s glorious. Erratic riffs and burbles emerge as spontaneously erupting chords and arpeggios that may loop, or self-mutilate, or decay within a free-flow of rhapsodising that teeters on the brink of order without ever being pinned down to any fixed structure. That feeling of discovery is an infectious joy: like with Nancarrow, you’re wowed by the theoretical implcations of what you’re hearing but at the same time, as long as you’re listening, you can’t stop smiling.