Saturday, October 04, 2008


I just switched from a cheap 49 key midi keyboard with tiny keys to one with a cheap midi keyboard with 88 full-sized keys. I don't use the keyboard for performance, just for entering notes (and even then, my note entry methods are promiscuous: mouse clicks, command line, computer keyboard, midi file, whatever does the trick for the job at hand), so the mechanical quality of the keyboard is not so important, but having full-sized keys is a nice benefit for my hands and the added range is the main attraction. For years, I had got along fine with the smaller ambitus under the motto that "constraint is a good thing" and, generally, working within the constraints of a limited pitch gamut has been useful. But, one does not always use the same limitations, and the added step of transposing up or down octaves is real added working time. Moreover, for some work in alternative tunings, it's useful to have extra keys to assign to extra pitches. I probably could have gotten along with 5 or 6 octaves — typical harpsichord or fortepiano ranges — but the commercially available keyboards all tend to be C-to-C keyboards, when an F-to-F would actually be more useful for the music that interests me. In any case, if I want to return to limits, I can probably just turn of the undesired notes, making it a soft- rather than hardware issue.

As long as I'm at it, isn't 88-keys a somewhat odd standard? It doesn't end at a number of complete octaves, and the lowest A seems arbitrary (the Viennese Bösendorfer and Australian Stuart and Sons do produce instruments with more extended bass keywork). The extreme range is used infrequently (although to good effect in a small number of pieces — Gordon Monahan's Piano Mechanics, Graciela Paraskavaides's Un lado, otro lado) and while the extreme bass can contribute much to the resonance of the instrument through sympathetic resonance, the upper octaves do much less (on smaller instruments, the dampers even stop around f'''). One of the few examples of a piece in which the entire range is used productively is Douglas Leedy's 88 is great, for piano, eighteen hands, a miniature for nine players at one instrument, written out in a kind of tablature, a work that requires very careful choreography and a sensitive placement of music stands. I did write one piece, in high school, in which I treated the entire range of the piano as a row (inspired by Cage's 25-tone techniques) and, later, Ron Kuivila described a piece in which a keyboard was built or programmed in which keys would get turned off once they had been used too often, which strikes me as a sweet way to improvise in a pseudo-serial texture. But you'd probably want to have one of those keyboards designed for children, in which keys have little lights underneath, indicating which ones have been used up and which ones are still active. But, don't worry, though I'm willing to do a lot, I'm not likely to go that far.

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