Dan Trueman: The Digital Piano, Well-Prepared


‘A Whole Palette of Sounds’

Dan Trueman is a composer, a violinist, and an electronic musician whose latest recording, Nostalgic Synchronic from New Amsterdam Records, is a mind-teasing eight etudes for “bitKlavier”—a “prepared” digital piano.

This is digital exploration at a level of graceful sophistication. A professor in music composition at Princeton (maybe ironically in 16th- and 18th-century counterpoint), he founded Princeton’s Laptop Orchestra (or PLOrk). He’s one of the most respected champions of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, and a much-admired and -commissioned composer of intelligent, reachy sound. His music doesn’t get stuck in your head as much as it gloms on to your nervous system. You won’t hum it all day. You’ll feel it.

And you have a choice here. Either put just a toe in—enjoy Etude 1, which we have for you on video here and read our interview. Or strip down and dive deep: have a look at the second video we offer in which Trueman explains his “Synchronic Nostalgic” body of work. You’ll find he’s a master at making exotic electronic music as clear as a synthesized bell. There’s detailed information about each of the etudes here. And you can see the complete score for Etude No. 1 here.

His collaborator and performer here is So Percussion’s Adam Sliwinski, which means you’re in the best of hands. And we start our conversation with Trueman by looking at the three types of “preparation” he imposes on the digital piano:

  • Synchronic, which causes a note to repeat on a rhythmic pattern, like a metronome;
  • Nostalgic, which makes notes in a sequence play back, or “reverse,” to you, and crest at different moments; and
  • Tuning, “a whole palette of sounds,” Trueman says, “that are not normally available on a piano.”

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‘Subverting The Algorithms At The Heart’

Thought Catalog: Dan, why three preparations for the piano? And how do you come to these three preparations? Could they have been something else entirely?

Dan Trueman: I would love there to be more. But, just as most things that you might prepare a piano and end up being not very interesting, effective, or practical—try, say, string cheese!—most of the things I’ve tried just aren’t very interesting, at least to me.

Two of the three preparations, synchronic and nostalgic, came directly from an instrument I built for neither Anvil nor Pulley, a piece I made for So Percussion a few years ago, and it took me months to find them. I tried so many things, and most bored me within seconds, or were too complex and messy—string cheese!—and it was only after a lot of trial and error, and then a fair bit of refinement, that I settled on these two techniques, techniques which I felt would provide me with lots of ways to create music and modes of interaction that would be worthy of a virtuosic group like So.

I’ve found there to be a “survival of the fittest” nature to the process; I’ll try just about anything, see how it works, and it might die off right away, or it might evolve in ways that initially seem promising, but then don’t lead anywhere, or it might actually evolve to a point where it sustains my interest indefinitely. It’s usually a good sign if I get lost playing with one of these, only to discover that hours or days have passed without distraction. Very few actually reach this last point, though I’m still at it, and if the synchronic, nostalgic, and tuning preparations are, say, an elephant, mosquito, and snake, I’m really hoping I find a dolphin in the future.

“If we can find ways to be musical, in the most old fashioned sense of the word, with machines, then I think we’ll learn a lot about ourselves and our machines, and we might just be able to make the world a slightly better place because of it.” Dan Trueman

TC: We should make the distinction here that we’re talking about the digital piano in your work. There’s such a thing as the “prepared piano” in the acoustic world, of course, too. How does this kind of digital piano preparation parallel, or not, the prep we’re more accustomed to on a regular old piano?

DT: I see the parallel in two ways:

With the acoustic prepared piano, there is a fairly laborious preparation process, where bolts are stuck between particular strings in specific ways to make those individual keys respond differently than the others. with the prepared digital piano, there’s a similar process, where the individual notes on the digital piano are configured to behave and respond in particular ways. In both cases, this is somewhere between an instrument-building and compositional process.

Then there’s the experience of the player, where their normal expectation for what will happen when they run their hands over the keyboard is subverted, with particular keys sticking out with their individual idiosyncratic sound—buzzing, muting—or, in the case of the prepared digital piano, idiosyncratic behaviors: emergent metronomes, reversed piano sounds, tunings changes, etc.

So there are real similarities in terms of the process of preparation and the experience of playing, but there are fundamental differences as well, of course. In the case of the prepared acoustic piano, the effect is really one of acoustic substitution: instead of getting the expected sound of a piano, we get a buzzing sound, or a harmonic, or a muted quality. Then the note fades away, just as a normal piano note would. With the prepared digital piano, we instead engage the most fundamental component of the digital world, the algorithm.

In fact, the digital piano itself is really at its heart a complex algorithm: press a key, and a series of instructions are then executed by a computer that ultimately generates a sound. Just as a bolt stuck between the strings of a piano subverts the fundamental acoustic design of the piano, these digital preparations subvert the algorithms at the heart of the digital piano.

I think the most tangible difference between the two, though, is how they play out in time. As I said, the buzzing preparation on an acoustic piano fades with time, as you’d expect, whereas the synchronic and nostalgic preparations on the digital piano continue in time, sometimes indefinitely, even getting louder, or fading and then swelling, yet always reflecting how you performed the notes that initiated the preparation.

They are musical machines of sorts, driven by your input, but with their own energy sources so that they may continue on without you. In some ways, they act as an acoustic mirror, showing you over time things that you did when you played a particular note or phrase, but in more subtle ways than a simple delay pedal.
[vimeo 105598759 w=500 h=281]

‘The Commitment of Making Something’

TC:  I love how Adam [Sliwinski] talks about there being “another entity” when he plays this work. I think that he’s talking primarily about the persistence of the tones, of course, but in his work, that comment seems to also reference a sense that you, the composer, are “there” somehow, too, as another entity. (Yes, I’m creeping myself out, even asking this.) Is there a reverse experience for you? Knowing Adam and his work as well as you do, do you sense a kind of “other entity as you create this music?

DT: Absolutely. After Adam took an interest in the first two or three [etudes], I most definitely had him in mind when i was writing the others. I know Adam well, and have a good feel for his musical sensibilities, even how he looks and breathes when he performs, and it was impossible for me not to have these things in mind while working on the pieces.

There are specific moves I made as well that I don’t think I would have made without thinking of Adam. For instance, in Etude No. 4 there’s a section where I ask him to phase, a la [Steve] Reich, with his two hands, gradually speeding up one hand while the other remains steady, and in No. 7 there’s a crazy polyrhythm I ask him to play, a kind of lopsided-Norwegian-asymmetrical-folk-rhythm against straight-4/4, that I just don’t think I would have asked a “normal” pianist to play.

“Machines, digital machines in particular, have permeated our lives so deeply and in ways we don’t even realize, and I think we’re a long way from discovering how we’re changing as a result.” Dan Trueman

TC: In the second segment, “Undertow,” it’s peculiar how emotionally resonant the music becomes. More sustained, more meditative, of course, but there’s also a sense there of a story, a concept, more than in what sounds like a comparatively formalist effect in other parts of the work. Is this deliberate? Does “Undertow” mean something especially felt? I hear something of this same thoughtful, reaching sense in “It Is Enough!” as opposed to the more frenetic “Points Among Lines.” And as long as I’m looking for clues in titles, how about “Marbles”? And “Wallumrød” — is this referencing [Norwegian jazz composer] Christian Wallumrød? If so, what does he think of it?

DT: “Undertow” makes use of a particular flavor of nostalgic preparation where the notes you play come back at you gently, like a wave, but before they crest, they reverse course and fade away—the undertow. I find the feeling of playing these sorts of preparations quite powerful, and deeply nostalgic. I grew up near the Long Island Sound, and spent hours there with the tides. It’s amazing to me that sound and the engagement of playing with sound in a particular way can evoke such visceral memories. In general, though, I am drawn to quiet music . My friend and collaborator Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is a particular inspiration in that regard. And both Undertow and It Is Enough! scratch that itch.

The title “Marbles” is inspired by the bits of tire that get cast off during an auto race, and more generally by the idea of race cars and driving fast, powerful machines. The prepared digital piano is a kind of machine, and I think machines can take us places, and at speeds, that we can’t get to in any other way.

Yes Wallumrød is referencing Christian. I love his harmonic sense, and his sense of space. There was a particular voice-leading change he makes in one of his tracks on Fabula Suite Lugano that I found particularly gorgeous and I used it as a starting point for No. 5. I’ve never met Christian and don’t know if he’s heard this or not; I’d be curious what he makes of it all.

TC:  Beyond technique and the sheer, direct impact of these sounds and Adam’s work to produce them, what does all this mean to you? Where, as a composer, are you going with this? Is it experimentation for its own sake, or do you have goals of effect and direction here? We might have asked John Cage exactly that question and found out—I think—that the experimentation, itself, was the destination. How about for you? Are you there for the experimentation as the intent? Or are you trying to stick another  landing? I guess I’m asking what you’re saying to us?

DT: Wow, hard questions!

I have personal, even selfish answers, and then there are “big” answers.

For the latter,  I do think that making music with machines, or more generally just being with machines, discovering our humanity with and through machines, is one of the big challenges of our time. Machines, digital machines in particular, have permeated our lives so deeply and in ways we don’t even realize, and I think we’re a long way from discovering how we’re changing as a result, for better or for worse. If we can find ways to be musical, in the most old fashioned sense of the word, with machines, then I think we’ll learn a lot about ourselves and our machines, and we might just be able to make the world a slightly better place because of it.

Personally, I love musical instruments, and I especially love when I can mess with them and then see what kind of music I might find. I play fiddle, and I have two unusual fiddles—a Hardanger fiddle from Norway, and a custom five-string “Hardanger d’Amore” fiddle—that i tune up in various ways and then see what tunes and textures I can find. It’s the most base and engaging sort of musical activity I know, and I love it.

The prepared digital piano project is very similar. I’m building an instrument, or instrument-machine, that I can mess with through programming and “preparation,” and then try to be musical with. These etudes are a product of that process, and I never would have imagined them without the instrument or the experimentation.

So, yes, on some level, experimentation is itself the destination. But I do also love the commitment of making something and standing by it, seeing what others make of it and do with it.

In this case, both the instrument and the etudes are those “somethings.” I’m so excited to see and hear what other musicians do with both of them.