Excuse Me, Are You Using That Machine?

A regiment of etudes, exercises and player piano studies for the human and inhuman pianist

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Monday, November 15, 2010

With equal parts awe and jealously, musicians often use the word "machine" to describe pianists with inhuman technical command of the instrument (e.g. “Did you hear Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Scarbo at Carnegie last night? That guy is a machine!"). These "machines" exhibit such mechanistic refinement, such physical control, that the repertoire’s most daunting technical tasks are literally overcome with a flick of the wrist.

Or switch.

This week on Hammered!, Q2’s hour-long showcase of contemporary piano music, the term “machine” is taken both figuratively and literally in a freakish pianistic smorgasbord exploring etudes written for the human and automated pianist.

Catagory One: the Human Machine. As music grew increasingly complex and its technical requirements for performance expanded, contemporary composers exploited these pianistic techniques with new etudes. What once were etudes in “thirds” and “octaves” became etudes in “polyrhythms” and “endurance.” This week's highlights from the “human performance” category include the complete Etudes by Claude Debussy, György Ligeti, William Bolcom and Ezequiel Viñao, along with selections by David Rakowski, Unsuk Chin and others.

Catagory Two: the Inhuman Machine. In rare – and often intentional – cases where technical demands surpass even the most dexterous pianistic wizards, sometimes the only way a composer can achieve a specific musical idea is by pre-programming mechanized instruments like a player piano, Disklavier or synthesizer. Anchoring the “machine performance” category this week are works by Conlon Nancarrow, Igor Stravinsky and Kyle Gann.

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