One autumn afternoon last century I had a wonderful time playing with a digital piano and my favourite music software. I was adding various echoes to the notes, as well as changing the pitches of the echoes; that’s something that can’t normally be done with echoes, and it made everything much more interesting and enjoyable. Some echoes stopped when a note was released, while others were unaffected by how long a note was held. Some of them happened at the same time and, being of different pitches, sounded like chords.
But something important had happened as well …
As I played I kept making adjustments in the software until finally, after a few hours, there didn’t seem to be any more fine-tuning to do. So I recorded a 10-minute improvisation. A few days later I chose the best bits, did some editing, and ended up with a piece about 4 minutes long. It was quite energetic and reminded me of some of my favourite pianists named Keith – Keiths Emerson, Jarrett and Tippett – so I called it Vitamin K.
I’d created a piece of music that I was quite happy with. But something important had happened as well, something far more significant than merely creating a 4-minute piece of music – I’d discovered a new way of creating music!
Well, it was new for me. It was fun and exciting. It enabled me to do things that can’t normally be done with two hands on an 88-note piano keyboard. It combined my two greatest musical loves: piano playing and musical computer programming. It sounded and felt natural and organic, but also had many of the benefits derived from hours of careful editing in a computer music studio. And it could be performed live.
Exploring interesting and/or exciting music beyond what has been done before is, as far as I can tell, the absolute epitome of what a composer would want to do, and it seemed that I had found my little niche in the world of composing. So over the next few years the idea developed in my head, and when the Inner Resting Music idea came up it seemed natural to do a piano album making extensive use of this computer-assisted piano playing. Vitamin K was too energetic for an album of relaxing music, but it had spawned a way of creating music that could be applied to many different styles, including relaxation music.
I used … piano sounds that have been edited
So that’s how the original idea for Shades of Ivory came about – using the computer to modify my live playing so that new things could be achieved. But to increase the range of possibilities even further I used everything at my disposal for the album: normal piano playing, playing that’s been transformed by the computer, notes generated by the computer, and many of the techniques I’ve learned from nearly three decades of using sequencers and computers to create music. I’ve used realistic piano sounds, piano sounds that have been edited – subtly, moderately or beyond recognition - and audio effects such as reverb, echoes and so on. All with digital pianos, of course.
Another thought I’d had for a long time came to the fore on this album. During many years of emulating “real” instruments with synthesisers and software I was always very aware of something: how unimportant it is to the listener that they’re listening to synthesisers rather than “real” instruments. If they sound the same it simply doesn’t matter whether that’s a guitar or a JV-1010, or whether that’s a VL70-m or a bamboo flute, and so on. (In fact, some listeners would prefer to know that they're listening to "real" instruments rather than synthesisers.) It seems that the only way this skill – emulating instruments with synthesizers and software – is useful to anyone (other than myself) is in doing things that those instruments can’t do. And that’s exactly what’s on this album – things that pianos can’t do.
And that’s exactly what’s on this album -
Much of my time was spent in the computer, editing the various piano parts – experimenting, adjusting, perfecting – always looking for something new and different. This certainly wasn’t always easy, since for almost 300 years the piano has been one of the most widely used instruments in existence. Thousands of brilliant composers and performers have contributed to its vast repertoire in almost all musical styles. So the effort to find a quiet spot in such a crowded and thoroughly explored world kept my imagination working hard.
This was especially true because, in spite of being experimental, the music still had to be kept within strict and fairly narrow boundaries. It had to be relaxing, beautiful and pleasant to listen to, with no dissonance, aggression or fast tempos. The extremes of being either too commonplace or too far removed from normal harmonious music had to be avoided. And as if that wasn’t enough restriction only piano sounds could be used.
There are nearly always several things going on
While the vast majority of piano albums are made by someone sitting at a piano, playing and recording it – often with brilliant results, by the way – it’s obvious on first listening that Shades of Ivory was made very differently. This isn’t just due to the use of a computer and digital pianos, but also because of its multilayered arrangements. There are nearly always several things going on at once, like a small orchestra of digital pianos. This is why the ability to do different things with each piano and to edit many of the sounds was so important.
Although the initial idea for the album came from an experiment with computer-assisted live playing, adding everything at my disposal meant that most of the final result can’t be performed live. Not with the same arrangements, anyway. (After a lot more programming and practice four of the pieces will probably be able to be performed live.) However, many of the initial ideas for each piece came from live playing, often while the computer was transforming it. So there’s still a good balance of “played” and “programmed”.
Exploring and experimenting with new techniques is, for me at least, much more difficult and time-consuming than creating music in well-established styles like blues, rock, pop and so on. There are no guidelines, no rules, and in this case no examples to follow (well, not that I knew of). There were many, many failed experiments, and times when my imagination just won’t provide the right ideas. Because of all this, Shades of Ivory took a few years and a lot of work to complete. To put it mildly, it’s very satisfying to finally have it finished and I think it’s been well worth all the effort. I hope you do, too.