Turning everything into a piano

I’m not talking tonally. I’m talking about enabling every instrument, no matter what, to sustain a complete performance including melody, harmony, and rhythm — using the looping techniques that are being investigated by many performers, including Zoe Keating as one of the most visible doing this with an instrument that is almost always considered an accompanying instrument. Yes, there are soloists and a decent solo literature, but for the most part, it’s one voice and it’s not the one that often carries the tune.

The piano has disadvantages — mostly that you can’t alter the tonal quality very much, you can’t bend a note, and you are locked into a tempered tuning if you want to be able to modulate freely. However, the massive advantage of a piano — the single most significant difference between it and almost everything else — is its sheer theoretical and structural size. You can carry an entire extremely complex performance down to every detail, as one person. Melody, harmony, rhythm, texture. All of it. It’s the only instrument except for a pipe organ that allows one person to be a complete orchestra.

Except well … now with Keating demonstrating the possibilities of creating a complete sound universe with one cello playing all of those roles, it appears that any instrument can be turned into its own total performance, even the ones that have played shadow roles thus far. Bassoonists? This is your time to shine. Tuba? French horn? Clarinet? *angelic smile* Viola? Guess what — you can now carry large orchestral works; the piano isn’t the only instrument that can sustain an orchestral reduction or a structurally complete piece anymore.

This requires a whole new way of arranging music, though. Arrangement for live performance means that new works will need to be created that optimize this technique, while old works may have to be retooled. Perhaps some, like “Bolero” or the “Canon in D” would lend themselves easily. With audio processing or distortion, perhaps one instrument can make more than one type of sound as well, making this all relevant to the piano, too. (Although I’d say that the more significant change to a piano would be to enable a digital piano to enjoy dynamic intonation, vibrato, or changes in sound quality like the tasto and ponticello that you can get out of a string instrument.)

It’s all very interesting, and enables all instruments to enjoy the same nearly unbounded structural advantages of a piano. I’ve often said that the piano welcomes you no matter what type of person you are or mood you’re in: introverted and reserved, social and outgoing. Anyone is welcomed. Now, the same can be said of every instrument in the orchestra. You don’t have to play with others if you don’t want to, and even the bassoons and bass trombones can be a universe unto themselves.

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