We at Soundfly love the piano. In many ways, it’s the Mother of Modern Instruments, a musical Khaleesi that’s ruled the stage for hundreds of years. Since its birth in the 1700s, the piano has appeared in almost every style of music you can think of — jazz, rock, classical, blues, cat music — and been played in countless ways, from rhythmic strides to expressionist soundscapes to dicey solos and more.
Which leaves us pianists with a conundrum: how do you do something new and interesting with the instrument that’s already done everything?
Well, musicians love a challenge, and it turns out there are some pioneering artists out there pushing the boundaries of this storied instrument — and in doing so, writing the next chapter in the piano’s long and diverse history. Here are four who are leading the way.
Hauschka’s Prepared Piano
Listening to Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka), you might imagine a full orchestra, a percussion ensemble, or an East German industrial warehouse party DJ, depending on the night. Hauschka plays what’s called the prepared piano — a way of playing where you toss a bunch of buttons, clothes pins, clips, forks, tape, or anything else you can find onto the strings of your piano. Basically, by doing so, you strip away the sustain and some of the resonance of the notes and add in the rattle of whatever you’ve thrown on top, making it sound extra percussive and allowing yourself to play different timbres on a single instrument.
(Momentary aside: timbre is the “tonal character” of a certain sound. Or in other words, what makes a trumpet sound different than a viola, even when they’re playing the same note.)
The prepared piano technique was first developed by John Cage, who wrote esoteric pieces that required sticking screws between the strings of the piano, among other detailed instructions. But Hauschka has transported the approach into a more accessible realm, playing rock-influenced compositions on pianos prepared with Tic Tac boxes and duct tape. By adding effect pedals and loops, he’s able to craft multi-layered rhythm-scapes and catchy melodies, not to mention a totally unforgettable live show where you’re constantly trying to figure out where the various sounds are coming from. Is that a bass drum I’m hearing or a piano string that has a piece of rubber stuck in it?
Nils Frahm’s Attention to Detail
Nils Frahm is clearly a piano aficionado. This year, he launched a campaign to make March 29th Piano Day worldwide. On the same day, he released an album of solo piano music recorded on a 12-foot-tall upright piano called the Klavins M370, an instrument built by famed piano maker David Klavins. Now, he’s touring with a special piano David built for him called Una Corda that only has one string per note rather than the customary three.
But all of this nerdy stuff would mean very little without the music, and Nils makes some incredibly beautiful piano-based music. He’s recorded a few albums of just solo piano, and they all give you a feeling of intense intimacy. You can often hear the sound of the pedals being pressed or the pianist changing position on the bench, and the notes themselves are both more present and a little softer than one would expect. With the atmospheric mechanical sounds and bell-like tones, it can often feel like lying down in a music box.
Live, he builds on this sound by adding in organs, synths, loops, effect pedals, and even occasionally beating on the piano with mallets to get new sounds. In other words, he’s constantly looking for ways to coax new sounds out of the instrument.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Minimal Electronics
Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto may play a lot of piano, but he never leaves his electronic roots too far behind. He got his start in the 1970s with renowned electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra, who are often credited with being a major influence on modern electronic and techno music. Since then, he’s constantly bouncing between electronic projects, collaborating with artists like David Byrne and exploring the piano in new ways.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s piano work is often defined by the space he creates. He’s perhaps most well-known for his soundtracks (he won an Oscar for The Last Emperor), but he continues also to make a lot of music in collaboration with electronic artists. His album Vrioon with German artist Alva Noto involves digitally manipulated and clean piano, creating lush, textured pieces that are still anchored in the melodic and harmonic beauty of the piano as a classic instrument. It’s a really innovative clash of old and new, analog and electronic, mechanical and digital.
Sakamoto is a master of two things that make his piano work endlessly different from most pianists: not playing a lot of notes, and patiently adding electronic textures to highlight the notes he does play.
Lubomyr Melnyk’s Continuous Music
The other pianists on this list all explore ways to tinker with the sound of the piano, reinventing the instrument by tweaking it mechanically, adding electronics or finding new ways to get non-traditional sounds out of it. Ukrainian-Canadian artist Lubomyr Melnyk, on the other hand, invented a new way to play it.
Called Continuous Music or Continuous Technique, Lubomyr’s work is thick with notes. He’s broken records as the “world’s fastest pianist” — and he uses this speed to fill the air with sound. Listening to his piano music brings into focus both the rhythmic side of the instrument, with its percussive cascading notes, and the possibilities for rich harmonic texture, with its overlapping resonances.
There are tons of other pianists out there doing interesting things — from Brad Mehldau’s pop-inspired jazz improvisations to Chilly Gonzales’ 27-hour long solo performance — but these four are pushing the instrument in entirely new directions.
Who are your favorite pianists and how are they moving the piano forward? Let us know in the comments below!
And if you’re interested to learn more about how to harness improvisation and jazz harmony in your own music, you’re going to love Soundfly’s new course with pianist and producer, Kiefer, on keys, beats, and chord changes, coming in October! Hop on our mailing list now to be notified as soon as this exciting course drops.