Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Aaron Otheim - October 17th, 2010


The piece I’ve prepared for this Sunday’s session is made possible by a spinet piano I bought for $9.99 from a thrift store.

For most purposes, this piano is in terrible condition: it’s severely out-of-tune, the action clunks noisily with each keystroke, and, until I cleaned it out a couple of days ago, some weird (probably carcinogenic) insulation material blanketed the bottom of the case.

However, the reason why I’ve been drawn to this otherwise pitiable instrument – and why I’m dragging it to Café Racer on Sunday – is because of how unique it sounds! Its tuning, for instance, has degraded in a fairly consistent manner. There are:

  1. …keys that produce a typical “honky-tonk” sound. This is a result of minute tuning differences between the two or three strings being struck by an individual hammer. [Listen]
  2. …keys that have remained in tune with themselves but have drifted away from their neighbors, resulting in slightly smaller or larger half steps between keys. [Listen]
  3. …keys whose strings are so out of tune from one another that a discernable interval is produced. There are eight of these keys within the range of what would be F5 to F#6. [Listen]

My approach to writing this piece, which will be performed as a solo work, draws largely from my experience with synthesizers. For me, the processes of composition and improvisation with a synth often begin with timbral decisions. After all, the character of the sounds used to orchestrate a piece can have a powerful effect on how that piece is performed and perceived.

The first step while writing was to take into account the sound of each note on the spinet and to treat the distinctions in timbre listed above almost like individual patches (sound settings) on a synth. Understanding the behavior of each key immediately gave me more control over note-choice. For instance, it became clear that if I were to play a chord, I would have the option of voicing that chord with notes that have purer intonation (the second type of key listed above) for a more familiar, tonal effect. On the other hand, the notes that are a little more wildly out-of-tune, especially when played together, create much more alien sounds, which in turn inspire alternative techniques.

One technique that I explore extensively in this piece is a manner of playing in which the hands overlap each other. It’s useful for executing tight “webs” of rhythms or patterns containing wide intervals. While this technique is commonly found in standard repertoire, especially in the service of arpeggios or fast-moving chords, it brings out a drum-like effect when implemented upon notes lacking definite pitch.

The idea of exploring the percussive and rhythmic attributes of the piano in my own playing has grown on me steadily for some time. One work that sealed the deal by helping me hear the piano very concretely as a percussion instrument was John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano.

The modifications to the piano’s timbre in these pieces helps neutralize one’s urge to hear things harmonically and instead forcefully directs attention towards the horizontal progression – the “strata” – of interlocking rhythmic lines.

This is characteristic of some of Alexander Scriabin’s later music, which has had a long-term influence on me. Besides developing a highly individual and sophisticated harmonic language, Scriabin also crafted an equally idiosyncratic rhythmic approach that propelled otherwise static harmonies. Many of these works feature intricate layers of polyrhythms that occur between obsessively drummed chords and intervals.

I’ve also been listening to Cecil Taylor recently. Check out his improvisation in the video excerpt below. Throughout the piece he restates and develops his initial melodic idea, sticking to the same succession of notes while making small changes to articulation, pacing and volume. This reminds me of drum solos I’ve heard in which the drummer plays parts of the drum kit (such as the toms) in a more melodic fashion.

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One other note: you’ll see the amazing work of Fritha Strand gracing the exterior of the piano on Sunday. If you’re not familiar with her art, please check out her website! Infinity thanks, Fritha!

Also, many thanks to Jane Frazee, Harry Frazee and the Gladiators Eat Fire peeps for helping me move a real, live piano into my house.

I’m really looking forward to Sunday, and I hope to see you there!