Monday August 6, 2012
Airing the ivories
By QISHIN TARIQ
Few electronic musical instruments come stranger than the airpiano.
ANY sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, predicted British science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke.
Electronic musical instruments have followed that claim closely, becoming increasingly outlandish as they advanced, evolving from the humble keyboard into Jean Michel Jarre’s laser harp and the LED-studded Tenori-On used by music mavericks Bjork and Peter Gabriel.
British electronica folk musician Jo Hamilton uses an instrument that is less flashy, though no less magical, which looks like a slab of wood that she produces music with by simply waving her hands over it.
What started as an experiment to find new ways to playback her music live, led Hamilton to discover the instrument called an airpiano. Seeing a video demo of the prototype by its inventor Omer Yosha on Youtube in 2009, she travelled to Berlin, Germany to meet the mind behind the unusual instrument.
Auditioning with the haunting songs from her debut album Gowns, Hamilton won Yosha’s approval and became the first musician to record and tour with the airpiano.
Before the instrument received its patented name Airpiano, Hamilton and Yosha nicknamed it “the plank”.
“Looking back, perhaps something more magical would be more apt,” she considered.
True to its nickname, the airpiano looks like a plank of wood with a series of red LED lights built into it that serve as markers of where to “touch” the virtual keys, not unlike some kind of holographic computer from a science-fiction movie.
“There are lights on the airpiano that light up when you’ve hit the target, but bizarrely, I think it’s memory that has turned into a kind of touch sensor – I can ‘feel’ where to go,” said Hamilton, adding “maybe I’m developing a new sense.”
Due to the controlled hand movements needed to hit the right virtual keys, Hamilton equates learning to play a song on the airpiano to a dance routine – more choreography than arrangement.
“There is a lot of software to learn for the airpiano. Then there’s learning the ‘routine’ with hand placements. It is still strange not being able to feel the body of an instrument or string as there are no physical connections between the performer and instrument,” recounted the piano-pioneer.
Being a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller, like a keyboard that plays samples rather than a finite-range of sounds of a traditional analog instrument, the airpiano can produce any recorded sound.
“Funnily enough, I’ve just captured the beautiful sound of the Tui bird here in New Zealand, which I’ll play at the show, but the strangest sound I have so far is fireworks,” shared the England-based musician.
However, with new technology comes new problems: the airpiano’s sensors occasionally face interference in rooms with low ceilings, and on one occasion, went completely haywire during the filming of a music video where the crew used dry-ice to create smoke, as the sensors registered the millions of dry-ice particles as someone wildly playing the instrument.
“Low ceilings, pigeons, dry ice, induction loops, certain stage lights and butterflies aren’t helpful,” recounted Hamilton with a laugh, “it has so far been a cold country instrument, so we shall see if the heat might affect it somehow.”
Hamilton will be making her solo debut in Kuala Lumpur tonight, one of her two South East Asian stops, including Singapore, as part of her Always Heading West tour.
“This is my first time performing outside Europe. After Singapore, we start a European tour with the full band, which will include England, Italy, Spain and Portugal,” said the Scottish lass.
The tour was partly to showcase the new instrument and also in support of her album Gown, which had received critical acclaim in her native Britain with a four-star rating by The Guardian, Mojo and The Independent.
“I don’t tend to take much notice either way. I’m grateful for a good review, and don’t like to remember the bad ones,” she remarked, though a comment on one of her Youtube videos that she described as “magical” was by a medical practitioner who thought her music would be good to play to patients to help alleviate pain.
“I’m writing a new album at the moment and have been working with some amazing people here in New Zealand on a beautiful project we’ll be revealing later,” she teased.
“I’d love to come back to Malaysia with the full band, too, maybe as part of the next tour.”
Jo Hamilton will be performing tonight at 9pm at Lust KL, in the Office Tower, 1, Jalan Nagasari, Off Jalan Raja Chulan, 52000, Kuala Lumpur. Cover charge is RM70, which includes the first non-alcoholic drink. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 03-4296 9863 for bookings.