Sound generation

This record profoundly shifted my thinking on the production of sound. The naked piano plate yields a rather broad spectrum of sound and tones.

Rear cover scans.

The instrument…

David Tudor’s 1961 realization of the Variations II is for amplified piano. As Tudor indicates in his notes regarding the realization, this is not just a score for a piano that happens to be amplified:

” My realization of Variations II evolved from a decision to employ the amplified piano, conceived as an electronic instrument, whose characteristics orient the interpretation of the six parameters to be read from the materials provided by the composer. ”

Tudor was clearly thinking of the amplified piano as something greater than the sum of its parts (piano and electronics). Here it is a unified electronic instrument with its own characteristics that must be addressed in the realization.

The amplification setup used is described in some detail in an interview Tudor gave with Frank Hilberg in 1990. The piano was amplified via three different devices. First, there were microphones placed above and below the piano. Secondly, there were contact microphones attached to the piano, or to automobile “curb-scrapers” (essentially stiff wire springs) that could be used to play the strings of the piano. Finally, Tudor used phonograph cartridges with various objects inserted into them. These cartridges could be used to scrape the piano strings, or could be placed so as to conduct the vibrations of the strings. The signals from these various microphones were mixed together, amplified, and played through speakers in the same space as the piano. The damper pedal of the piano was held down throughout so that the strings could vibrate freely.

This setup produces a number of feedback loops. Playing on the strings of the piano excites the various microphones in different ways depending on their placement and nature. When these signals are amplified and played back into the space, feedback is communicated directly through the microphones, but also through the sympathetic vibration of the strings of the piano. The whole system presents a very complex interaction of its various parts. Adjusting the levels of the various microphone signals, the ways in which the cartridges are deployed in the piano, and the ways in which the piano is played will alter the behavior of the whole system.

However, the system is so complex that its behavior can never be totally predicted: the amplification of the piano made it, to some degree, an uncontrollable instrument. Tudor’s own characterization of it was that he “could only hope to influence” the instrument — he could not predict the nature of the sounds that would result from a particular action. This unpredictability was to be the controlling factor in Tudor’s realization of Variations II, as will be seen.

By James Pritchett

Invest 26 minutes…….

My system for dynamic and concussive sonic assaults.


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