Choking Disklavier Interview on Chain DLK

Interview by Vito Camaretta, posted March 7, 2016

“Imagine the Disklavier in the center of the stage, the composer/performer somewhat distant to the side. Several microphones are put into position not over the strings, but at the hammers and keys. Remotely controlled by the composer/performer, the piano produces constantly rumbled and crackled noises, often rhythmically, occasionally ringing strings are added on top, or stopping for a few seconds on a chord”.

With these words, the brilliant composer and instrument maker Hans Tammen introduced “Music For Choking Disklavier”, his recent release on Clang label. We listened, we appreciated it and we had a chat with its author.

Chain D.L.K.: Hi Hans, how are you?

Hans Tammen: I’m good…

Chain D.L.K.: As usual, I ask the musician to introduce himself in his own words…

Hans Tammen: What can I say? I’ve been running a few projects for a long time. There’s my Endangered Guitar performances, which use an interactive hybrid instrument. The Third Eye Orchestra, a chamber ensemble that incorporates a broad range of styles. The Dark Circuits Orchestra is an all-electronic ensemble working with performers who are using their own crazy approach to electronics. Then I am having fun also working on other projects, such as a recent work for tabla machine and live sound processing, or my Choking Disklavier thing.

Chain D.L.K.: You started by playing rock and jazz before moving to improvisation…most improvisers I talked about that came from other styles justify their choice by saying that they were getting bored by eating, more or less, the same old soup…the same for you?

Hans Tammen: Not at all. First, when it comes to Rock and Jazz, the improvisatory aspects, the collective jamming, that was the most interesting part for me. Plus, I do see some improvisers eat the same old soup all the time, so repeating oneself certainly isn’t relegated to music outside of improvisation. Following Bruce Ellis Benson’s “The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue”, for me improvisation happens when one ventures into new and unknown territory. It is the technique humans have used for millennia to survive.

For me it’s just a mindset; there are people who need to have everything planned out in advance, and there are others like me who thrive in “uncertain” situations. When it comes to electronic instruments, you have to create these uncertainties yourself. That’s why I programmed those into my Endangered Guitar software, and that’s why I like synths that use chaos or random processes.

Chain D.L.K.: What’s your opinion on the way in which audiences perceive improvisation? Do you think most audiences are not mature enough yet?

Hans Tammen: If you use the term in the traditional sense, I don’t see that. People have listened to music that is not completely scored beforehand for ages, and didn’t have a problem with it.

Chain D.L.K.: If you had to write a glossary for a newbie, how would you describe the idea of “sound sculpting”?

Hans Tammen: Not sure… as I see with my visual art students, it already starts with “sound”, which is something that most people do not have an idea about. You’d have to explain partials, and then show how changing the overtone structure makes all the difference. Then go on to attack and decay, etc… something like that?

Hans Tammen by Joe Maggio

Chain D.L.K.: As a builder and fan of DIY modular synth, is there any model that is closer to perfection? If so, why?

Hans Tammen: No. First, “perfection” can only be an individual choice and dependent on your needs, similar to a piano that is perfect for one set of choices, versus a saxophone that is perfect for another set. Plus, what happens when your goals change all the time, because as a performer you develop and change, too?

For that, maybe the Eurorack worlds offers the most in flexibility, and it has a constantly changing marketplace – this comes with a cost, of course, because people also constantly buy and sell modules; just look at what’s up on EBay! Meanwhile, the Buchla Music Easel is for me the best compromise between portability, playability and timbral range. And for the Blippoo Box, I want that specific sound and the chaos function that the performer struggles with. (YouTube)

Chain D.L.K.: Is there a branch of human knowledge that could be closely matched to electronic music in your viewpoint? If so, why?

Hans Tammen: I have no idea what to answer here. It’s all science…

Chain D.L.K.: What’s the most “electronic” sound in “real/natural” space and, vice versa, the most “natural/realistic” artificial sound you’ve ever heard?

Hans Tammen: Not sure… I try most of the time to avoid that distinction!

Chain D.L.K.: I know the word “chokes” doesn’t refer to the act of strangling…but have you choked some other instrument before Disklavier?

Hans Tammen: You are right, the “choking” is just a necessary means to get the Disklavier thundering and rumbling. What I did with the Disklavier was to enhance and isolate all the noises and sounds from the motors you’d never hear, and for that I needed it to run in a way where primarily only the motors are running without hitting the strings.

When it comes to automatons, I am not so interested in having them playing better than humans. I’d look into their own specific timbral areas, the same as you would use a bass clarinet or percussion for very different tasks in your ensemble.

I worked with Eric Singer’s LEMUR GuitarBot, a set of 4 MIDI controllable monochords. The sounds I used were the ones that happened when you vigorously banged the movable frets into the stoppers at the end of the “fretboard”, the crackling when you move the frets in tiny fractions so that the strings start vibrating, and a high pitched sound that the motherboard emitted. I used my Endangered Guitar software to analyze the sounds, and to control the GuitarBot via MIDI. Then I set up a feedback loop between the instrument and the software, and let those automatons play off each other for a while, tweaking the controls along the way. The resulting 5.1 surround sound piece has been presented in sound installations since 2005.

Chain D.L.K.: Why Disklavier?

Hans Tammen: That happened by coincidence – I was asked to do something at Brooklyn College at some point, and they had a Disklavier, so let’s try it! I like automatons, but one needs to have access. I was attracted to the idea because the Disklavier is, to my knowledge, the only electronic instrument that can be played as a “traditional” instrument AND is widely available.

Chain D.L.K.: What are the main problems in building a compositional bridge between Disklavier and other instruments? Do you think it can stand alone?

Hans Tammen: The main problem is always the composer, never the technology. When dealing with specific instruments, one can certainly be overwhelmed by the instrument’s idiosyncrasies – but that’s true for the oboe as well.

Chain D.L.K.: One of my favorite tracks is “Ascending and Descending Stairs”…why such an “Escherian” title?

Hans Tammen: Ah, sorry, that’s not the Penrose Stairs, but a series of early photographs that study motion. Looking at the “Ascending and Descending Stairs” series reminded me of someone going up and down slowly. When I was looking for titles, the music reminded me of early photographs and movies. The piano is such an old technology (well, just 300 years…), then you add the “modern” Disklavier Technology, but the result is a sound that goes back again, reminding me of old machines.

Chain D.L.K.: “Studies in Animal Locomotion” made me think of a lesson about the beauty of horse riding and the way they move their legs…have you translated any similar studies into music?

Hans Tammen: It is actually a series of photographs studying how horses trot!

Chain D.L.K.: You quoted Melies as well…how come?

Hans Tammen: When naming the pieces, I tried to stay within the early photographs and movies parameter, and how can one not use Melies?

Chain D.L.K.: Which of the twelve tracks is the most difficult to play on live stage?

Hans Tammen: I do know that people try to play Nancarrow’s work for Player Piano. That is possible because one can even translate his pieces into standard notation. My Disklavier pieces only use the motor rumbling sounds, and that is not played on the keys. “La barricade de la rue Saint-Maur-Popincourt” could be played to a certain degree, since it does send all the data into one key, but then after a few seconds, when I tweak the parameters, the rumbling starts in the background again.

The Choking Disklavier is a sonic/timbral work, tied to exactly that machine, so I am not sure how to translate it for a human player. I mean, a human player sitting at the keyboard, not at the controls of my software.

Then the last piece could be played on the keys, but why would one do that? I recorded about 10 minutes of the “choking” procedure, and for this last recording I isolated all the moments the machine was choking on the data, stopping on a chord for a few seconds. I put all those in a row, and out came a piece perfectly fitting for the end of the CD. Even if it sounds like a traditional piano piece, it is still derived from the “choking” idea.

Chain D.L.K.: Your “choking” project was premiered in April 2006…do you remember some of the feedback/reactions on that occasion?

Hans Tammen: Not really. I presented it as an installation version, and in installations people go in and out, and do not interact in the way they do with performances. I remember, though, that someone thought the Disklavier was broken. ;)))

Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?

Hans Tammen: I am always tossing around ideas. You asked me before if I “translated any studies into music”, and I am currently experimenting with a set of my DNA data. It’s almost 65,000 lines of text, and I want to find a way to incorporate it as a “source of uncertainty” into my Endangered Guitar software, so that I am struggling with it during a performance. I’d call that “Conflicts of Interest”, and I am sure I’ll be ready to perform it in 2016!

Original Posting here.