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Live shows, laptops and the democratic deficit

Tom Hodge of the project PIANO INTERRUPTED about the interaction between piano and computer, connecting the worlds of analogue and digital and how to make this connection come to life.
Tom Hodge April 5, 2014

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PianoInterrupted2 by SimonBierwald Live shows, laptops and the democratic deficit

PIANO INTERRUPTED – Photo by: Simon Bierwald

As a band we try to concern ourselves with only two things: making records and playing concerts. Our records are a point of reference, an archive, but only a starting point in terms of where a live show might go. Records are about writing music of course. But in preparing for playing live, the writing actually continues, along with arranging for a band and consolidation through practice, re-examining the material that we have written, and developing a live ‘voice’ to put in front of an audience.

What is it like to play in a band with a laptop? Many people use computers for playback and then simply play along. This was not for us. We try always to avoid the formulaic, instead building the computer as a bona fide improvising voice in our improvising band.

We joke that Franz’ instrument is called ‘interrupted.’ It is much more subtle than that of course- much time is spent between the two of us designing the computer’s parameters of musical expression. The parameters of improvisation need to be carefully governed- broadly speaking we decide in advance what the computer might do but leave it open as to when it will do it. But in digital terms, in terms of sound manipulation, the possibilities of what the computer might do are infinite. This makes for a lot of hard choices!

There are certain elements, certain themes, certain Piano Interrupted signatures, which we do chose to ‘play back’ whether that be on laptop or piano. A peculiarity of the laptop is that it offers an exact reference to a recorded version of every single one of our pieces. The tempos for example are identical to our records as they are set digitally by the laptop. There are certain ‘interruptions’ that can be relied on to be digitally identical every time.

Time is inevitably less fluid with a laptop. We have two potential states- either there is a specific rhythmic element that is digital accurate, or a totally ambient and experimental state. There is not really any in between. This presents certain challenges. It is more difficult to play something deliberately ‘loose’ for example or to move seamlessly between free time and groove-based playing. Or as a classical example, a ‘poco piu mosso’ is not, despite being perfectly achievable (as anything is with a laptop), a ‘natural’ digital approach.

PianoInterrupted 2 by ClaireBelhassine Live shows, laptops and the democratic deficit

Franz Kirmann and Tom Hodge – Photo by: Claire Belhassine

It’s all about democracy. Or not. In fact to continue with the politics, we have a slight democratic deficit in Piano Interrupted. An improvising live unit relies on a balance between its members. One musician offers up a direction and the others choose whether to follow, to hold, or to counter balance with a new direction perhaps, and so the process goes.

In Piano Interrupted, things are slightly different- when the laptop adopts a rhythmic role then it inevitably occupies a dominant position in the unit, for if the laptop decides to ‘move’, the other musicians have to follow. Conversely if the laptop takes an ambient or fx driven role then its position is more subservient to the group’s collective consciousness.

Each of our tunes moves back and forth between these two states, passing through that point of democratic balance in the middle and it is to this that we devote much practice time.

Perhaps part of the reason the live show is always evolving, and why live versions of our tunes differ from one concert to the next and often differ wildly from the album version is that there are so many possibilities, and furthermore, no right or wrong way of playing them. It is this ‘newness’ that keeps live shows so rewarding for us as artists, and hopefully for the audience too.

In Berlin, Franz and I are premiering a brand new live duo iteration of PIANO INTERRUPTED – it will throw the relationship between piano and computer (the ‘writing’ relationship) into sharp focus. It is an opportunity to push the boundaries of laptop freedom further. Franz only has me to deal with, and I in turn can focus much greater attention on responding to the laptop. Only time will tell how democratic it will be.

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TOM HODGE was born in England in 1975 but grew up in Melbourne, Australia before returning to London. He has been scoring music to picture for over ten years and his credits include 3 feature films (most recently the award-winning Common People), a handful of TV themes and over 200 synchronisations in advertising for virtually every major worldwide brand.

PIANO INTERRUPTED is the brain child of Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann. The project blends their respective disciplines of film composition and piano on the one hand and organic electronica on the other. In April PIANO INTERRUPTED will play Denovali Swingfest which shorty got named one of Europe’s best small festivals 2014.

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