Karlheinz Essl

The Untempered Piano

interactive sound installation / meta instrument
In Honor of Jean-Sebastièn Bach (1685-1750)

Commissioned by the City of Vienna (Austria) for the Bach-Year 2000

Basics | Performances

Excerpt of The Untempered Piano
© 2000 by Karlheinz Essl

The Untempered Piano is an interactive sound installation that has been created by Karlheinz Essl for the Bach exhibition at the Museum of Technology in Vienna, Austria. It was commissioned by the City of Vienna for the Bach Year 2000.

By clicking with the mouse on the colored circles and the piano keyboard on the computer screen, the user can compose an individual version of this infinite piece. If no user interaction has taken place for 15 seconds, the program will switch to an auto creation mode where it starts composing and playing on its own. Whenever the mouse is moved, this autonomous process is stopped and the user can play with the mouse like on an instrument.

This infinite piece is being composed in realtime due to user interaction. Written in Max/MSP, it takes advantage of compositional algorithms that have been developed by Karlheinz Essl since the middle 1980s utilizing random operations, serial and stochastic procedures: bundled in the so-called RTC-lib.

The Untempered Piano is based on piano sounds opposed to the world of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Well-Tempered Piano". It focusses on those domains that has been banished in the traditional piano music: strange, noisy and crackling sounds produced by treating the instrument with tools like horse hair, coins, chains, rubber gum, plektron etc. The "normal" piano sound - achieved by playing with fingers on the keyboard - has been completely abandoned.

screen shot

Graphical user interface of The Untempered Piano
© 2000 by Karlheinz Essl

Eight different structure generators form the conceptual basis of the piece which generate music according to certain compositional algorithms:

Long sustained sounds - mostly in a low transposition with slow fade in and fade out. By steadily superimposing drones one can create virtually everlasting sounds.

Sustained sounds in various transpositions.

Short and accentuated "pointillistic" events which occur in three different forms:

Sounds with an inner rhythmical pulsation such as trills, tremolos, and textures.

Loud attacks achieved by playing several mostly short sounds together.

Selected percussive sound are repeated with a constant pulsation, fading in and out. Each time the colored circle is clicked, another layer with its own pulsation speed is created. By superimposing several rhythmical layers one can create extemly complex rhythmical structures.

A gesture created by repeating a percussive sound either as an accelerando or a ritardando. The transposition of the sound follows a certain curve that is obtained by a random- driven algorithm.

One or several percussive piano sounds are placed on an even rhythmical grid which can be "excavated" by rests.

Minimal System Requirements

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Updated: 27 Dec 2006