Founding Editor: Annette Richards
Editors-in-chief: Roger Moseley and Tilman Skowroneck
Volume Editor: Leon Chisholm
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David Hyun-Su Kim
The Keyboard as a Musical Interface
Johannes Keller and Martin Kirnbauer
Tiffany K. Ng
Catalina Vicens and Leon Chisholm
For many readers of this journal, the twelve-note-octave keyboard interface is a deeply familiar technology, structuring the ways in which we make sense of music. Ironically, this very intimacy can make it difficult to assess the fundamental ways in which the keyboard has impacted not only our musical selves, but also the creative practices, technical knowledge, value systems, and identities of its users throughout its long history. Many of the articles in KP XII respond to this quandary, centering the keyboard’s interface in the stories that they tell.
This volume opens with three freestanding essays that cover a wide gamut of topics. First, Christopher Holman presents evidence for patterns of ornamentation in sixteenth-century Swiss keyboard tablatures, providing today’s keyboardists with a lexicon of figures that might be applied to contemporary performances of this repertoire. David Hyun-su Kim then revisits the topic of Clara Schumann’s improvisatory preludes, arguing that they too form a promising point of entry for today’s musicians who wish to inject an element into the performance of music from the past that is at once novel and historical. Finally, Lindsey Macchiarella investigates how the reception of Erik Satie’s music has been conditioned by trends in pianistic performance practice that reflect the preoccupations of the mid-twentieth-century avant garde and recording industry more than Satie’s own complex and variegated approach to the keyboard.
The remaining articles in this volume grew out of a two-day conference, “The Keyboard as a Musical Interface: Materiality, Experience, Idiom,” held in 2018 at the Deutsches Museum in Munich and organized by members of the research group “Materiality of Musical Instruments.” With topics that range from medieval organetto performance to the rejection of the keyboard by light artists in the twentieth century, the articles included here chart out a longue durée of the keyboard interface’s impact on the arts and sciences.
The Deutsches Museum’s musical instrument collection was conceived in the early twentieth century as a showcase for “masterpieces of science and technology,” in the words of its curator, Silke Berdux. By design, it features a variety of keyboard instruments with extraordinary interfaces, an early selection of which can be seen in a historical photo reproduced here in the article by Katharina Preller (Figure 6 on p. 95), a co-organizer of the conference. In most cases, these are elaborate interfaces that contain more keys than the standard twelve-note-octave keyboard, allowing the player to control a microtonal gamut (in the photograph, we see quartertone and just intonation instruments). The normalization of unusual keyboards here, which inspires us to assume a longer perspective on the “ordinary” keyboard itself, is akin to the concept of “defamiliarization” as formulated in Russian literary theory to describe the capacity of literature to make the familiar seem strange and mysterious. In helping us gain a more distant perspective on the keyboard that we know so well, defamiliarized keyboards help to bring hidden ontologies into view. As such, they can also serve an important historiographical function. Yet, more often than not, defamiliarized keyboards are approached as though they are part of the Weird Musicology that Emily Dolan defines as “a parade of quirky historical objects and circumstances that elude serious criticism because they resist any sophisticated dialogical engagement.”
The first article of the conference portion of the volume, co-authored by Martin Kirnbauer and Johannes Keller, challenges the marginalizing take on unfamiliar keyboards. The piece grows out of the authors’ work with the Basel-based research project Studio31, which saw the reconstruction of four keyboard instruments with 24 to 36 notes per octave from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy. A particular focus of the project was Nicola Vicentino’s two enharmonic keyboards from the mid-sixteenth century, the archicembalo and arciorgano—instruments often cast as eccentric cul-de-sacs that had little influence over the remarkable musical environments in which they were situated. In the first part of the article, Kirnbauer foregrounds the historicity of the standard modern keyboard layout by overviewing the invocation of proto-keyboards in fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century music theory treatises. He argues that the archicembalo and arciorgano emerged organically to re-establish an aspect of humanist music theory, the sub-semitonal intervals of the enharmonic gender of the tetrachord, which had fallen by the wayside due in large part to the success of the twelvenote- octave keyboard. Yet in their realization, Vicentino’s keyboards were at least as disruptive as they were restorative, enabling previously unknown ways of playing, composing, singing, and rehearsing. Keller proceeds to describe how his experience playing Vicentino’s “arch”-keyboards and other enharmonic keyboards (or vieltönige keyboards, to use the authors’ preferred term) has changed the way that he conceives pitch and intervallic relationships. His effective use of the arciorgano to accompany singers singing chromatic music by composers such as Michelangelo Rossi shows that enharmonic keyboards could indeed have had application beyond the confines of enharmonic music. Keller’s account reveals how the visual and haptic maps of the gamut that enharmonic keyboards provide force the player to confront early modern music-theoretical practicalities that the standard keyboard obfuscates.
Thanks to the European penchant for keyboardifying musical instruments, it was not long after the importation of the sheng in the mid-eighteenth century that its sound source, the free reed, became the “back end” to harmoniums and other keyboard instruments. With its extraordinary stability of pitch, the free reed was an optimal sound source for the granular intervals of just-intonation harmoniums with elaborate keyboard interfaces. As Katharina Preller recounts, the nineteenth-century harmonium virtuoso Leopold Alexander Zellner saw these instruments as falling into one of two categories. The first comprised harmoniums built by latter-day Vicentinos, who had in mind the training of singers in subtle matters of intonation; the second included instruments designed by scientists primarily to explore acoustical phenomena. Among the harmoniums that fell into the latter category was Carl Eitz’s Reinharmonium, commissioned by Hermann von Helmholtz and used by Max Planck in Berlin. Contemporaries considered it an aesthetic representation of the limits of human hearing, using state-of-the-art technology. Preller’s account of the harmonium’s history reveals fascinating details of its origins, construction, and use.
By digitizing the sound of other musical instruments, keyboards place music that might otherwise require a group of people literally in the hands of a single musician. This downsizing of musical labor dominates the history of keyboard music, from the earliest intabulations to immersive performances of Disney tunes on the Mighty Wurlitzer at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona. (And if our definition of keyboard includes computer keyboards and other button-based controllers, the current decline of bands in pop music in favor of solo laptop musician-producers is another manifestation of keyboard-enabled streamlining.) These examples foreground the economy that underpins what Dolan has identified as the keyboardal mode of “complete control.” Tiffany Ng picks up this thread to trace how the organ’s capacity for total control bred a powerful image in nineteenth-century fiction of the organ as an instrument of dystopia and brooding, technophilic villains. Ng demonstrates that recognizing this cultural association, which took on various guises in the real world, is crucial to framing major developments in twentieth-century organ history, including the Organ Reform Movement and the neo-Romantic reaction against it, as epitomized by Virgil Fox and, most recently, Cameron Carpenter.
As Ng notes, the notion of the organ as an instrument of total control belies its own long history as a collaboration between keyboard players and calcants (bellows operators). Hans Fidom reconsiders the history of the organ as an unfolding relationship between what he identifies as its two interfaces: the keyboard (which comprises not only the keyboards proper, but all controls that are within the organist’s reach) and the bellows. The electrification of organ bellows in the nineteenth century eliminated the dependence on calcants and, in this sense, granted total control of the instrument to the organist. But viewed from a different angle, electrification involved ceding control of the wind to a machine, thereby eliminating an entire dimension of the organ’s expressive power. While Kirnbauer’s, Keller’s, and Preller’s research highlights the importance of design limitations of the history of the keyboard interface, which fueled centuries of innovations in temperament, layout, and other means of hedging the “cracks” between the keys, Fidom reminds us that the bellows interface too has been a site of continuous renegotiation. He positions hyperorgans—organs that harness digital technology to put expressive control of the wind (and other parameters) back into the hands of humans—as the latest development in this history. By enabling an unprecedented degree of control over windflow, hyperorgans open up revolutionary possibilities for the organ’s future, Fidom contends.
The keyboard’s adoption as the interface for a wide variety of instruments has not been without controversy. Synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla famously described the keyboard as “dictatorial,” while the negative reception of the harmonium in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India hinged in part on the inflexibility of pitch that the keyboard mandates. Such criticism of the keyboard’s constraints was by no means limited to musical instruments. Ralph Whyte examines the conceptual challenges that the keyboard imposed on the work of twentieth-century light artists who had inherited the interface from the earlier synaesthetic color organ, which controlled music and synchronized lamps of different colors. For light artists Mary Greenewalt and Thomas Wilfred, the aliasing effect of the keyboard presented a blockade to realizing the full potential of light as an artistic medium. Their rejection of the keyboard in favor of non-keyboard control systems for their light-producing instruments marked, in Whyte’s view, a definitive rupture in the history of light art.
In a way, our interview with Catalina Vicens is a prequel to the narratives of Ng and Fidom. While Vicens is an accomplished player of multiple historical keyboard instruments, our discussion focuses on her experience with the organetto—a medieval instrument that puts both keyboard and bellows in the lap of its player. Vicens relates how playing the organetto has transformed her approach to both melody and accompaniment. We also discuss what the rising popularity of this instrument within the early music scene might mean for our understanding of more “canonical” keyboards, such as the harpsichord and piano. Finally, Vicens addresses some of the philosophical ironies and social challenges of the early music movement, sharing how the organetto has helped her to navigate them.
The final piece from the “Keyboard as a Musical Interface” conference is a template provided by Laurence Libin for the documentation of keyboard interfaces. With a curator’s eye to the future and the decay of historical artifacts that will inevitably attend it, Libin recognizes the necessity of precise and comprehensive descriptions of keyboards to ensure reproducibility. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of translating of players’ subjective knowledge of keyboards, particularly their touch, into quantifiable terms.
Leon gratefully acknowledges the support of the Research Group, “Materiality of Musical Instruments: New Approaches to a Cultural History of Organology” (funded by the Leibniz Association) and the Histories of Music, Mind, and Body Research Group of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in the preparation of this volume.
— Leon Chisholm, Roger Moseley, and Tilman Skowroneck