Review: New Possibilities For Upright Pianos: Real-time Adjustable Microtones, Harmonics, Multiphonics, and More. Lecture-Recital by Douglas Jurs (January 2021)
Often relegated to small practice rooms, faculty offices, and “casual” performing arts venues, upright pianos stand to the side while their grand and baby-grand cousins lounge in the spotlight. This seems to be the case even more so for compositions designed for extended techniques. Performance after performance of Henry Cowell’s The Banshee or George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae feature the pianist standing in the crook of the grand piano or reaching awkwardly into an open lid to manipulate strings stretched across an expansive soundboard. Even John Cage’s instructions for preparing the piano strings for his Sonatas and Interludes seem predicated on using a grand piano.
Fortunately, Douglas Jurs, Assistant Professor of Music at Allegheny College, provides a fresh take the use of extended techniques for the piano in his lecture-recital, “New Possibilities for Upright Pianos: Real-Time Adjustable Microtones, Harmonics, Phasing Multiphonics, and More.” Throughout the 45-minute video, Jurs presents “previously unexplored extended techniques specifically for upright pianos.” In other words, these techniques could not be performed on a grand piano (or at least not without some remarkable acrobatics). With an intended audience of composers, performers, and educators, Jurs alternates between performing a set of four “sound etudes” (which he composed) and explanations of the techniques in each etude.
For Jurs, an important distinction between his extended techniques for the upright piano and a grand piano is that “I can still play like a pianist with these techniques.” For the most part, he sits and plays the actual keyboard with both hands in a normal fashion, unlike many grand piano extended techniques (aside from prepared piano) that require one hand to manipulate the strings. The performer’s foot now takes on this role by pressing the exposed strings that are revealed by removing the lower front panel of the upright piano. Using multiple camera angles throughout the lecture, Jurs demonstrates how to use a foot—and sandals made from different types of materials—to continually adjust the timbral output of the strings while playing the keyboard with one or both hands.
There are four primary variables that Jurs uses for manipulating the strings:
- Placement, referring to where the performer places their foot on the exposed string.
- Pressure, which Jurs explains has more variance with a foot as opposed to “squishy hands.”
- Contact point, which differs from placement in that it refers to how much of a string the performer uses. A small contact point with the toe (potentially producing overtone harmonics) is different than using the entire length of the foot covering a large portion of the string.
- Material, specifically the makeup of his mostly custom-made sandals. Jurs explores different materials and their effects against each string, à la John Cage. Some materials that Jurs uses during these specific etudes include sandals with rope, wood, or rubber soles.
Jurs presents and explains the four etudes in different ways. For example, he plays “Etude on One Note” before any explanation of the extended techniques, allowing the audience to first experience the piece and wonder how he creates each sound. He reverses this method for the second and third etudes. After demonstrating additional extended techniques, he then proceeds to the performances of “Etude on Four Notes” and “Etude for Open Pedal.” In his final piece, Etude #4, Jurs performs and explains the extended techniques simultaneously. This varied approach keeps the lecture-recital fresh and engaging, demonstrating Jurs’s careful attention to multiple pedagogical methods.
Overall, the techniques that Jurs employs mostly involves timbral manipulations through generating overtones, pitch bends, hammer and muting techniques, strumming, glissandi, and changes in materials that press against the strings. Jurs is straightforward about some of the limitations of these extended techniques. For example, the exposed strings under the front panel are limited to the lowest register of the piano (pitches A0 through F#3), even if this register can be manipulated to higher pitches and through harmonics.
Furthermore, Jurs notes that some of the effects aren’t necessarily new, such as muting affects (akin to the guitar), or the “strumming” effect, for which he references Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp (1923). He respectfully also offers precursors for and similarities to his pieces such as Helmut Lachenmann’s Der Kinderspiel (1980) and György Ligeti’s Etude No. 3: Touches bloquées (1985). Acknowledgement of similar-sounding precursors works against his initial claim of “previously unexplored extended techniques,” but throughout the lecture Jurs emphasizes the distinction of using the upright piano for these techniques.
At varying points throughout the lecture, Jurs offers additional ideas for future exploration beyond the techniques specific to each etude. These include:
- The aforementioned “aeolian harp” effect.
- Interference buzz. Some strings exposed behind the lower panel cross in front of other strings. By pressing on these front strings with enough pressure, Jurs forces contact with the strings that are further behind, creating a metallic buzzing effect.
- Playing the untuned segments of strings between the sound board bridge and the hitch pins, which Jurs references as an homage to the opening of Van Halen’s “Running with Devil.”
- Additional materials for sandals.
It is clear that Jurs experimented with and carefully thought about the numerous possibilities for new and exciting sounds with the upright piano. His reference to microtones in his title may be slightly misleading. Anyone expecting discussions of schismas, commas, or precise and equal partitions of the octave above twelve equally-tempered divisions will not find that here. His “real-time adjustable microtones” refers more to a nuanced continuum of pitches rather than something akin to Gérard Grisey’s spectralist approach to micro-intervals. Furthermore, there’s a bit of do-it-yourself sandal building for anyone who wants to approximate some of Jurs’ techniques. His use of camera angles is helpful, although it would have been nice to have multiple angles simultaneously to see both the keyboard performance and extended techniques in tandem.
None of these caveats, however, are problematic to the lecture-recital. Jurs produces significant amounts of fascinating sounds throughout the video and presents them in fun and engaging ways. He acknowledges the difficult times that performers, composers, and teachers face with regards to a global pandemic, yet encourages us to “enjoy this weird time.” Jurs’s extended techniques for the upright piano clearly emerged from his time in isolation, and he shows us how we can embrace such times for the benefit of innovative new music.
Peter Smucker is Associate Professor of Music Theory and Director of Music Theory at Stetson University. His research interests include ludomusicology, post-tonal music in the United States, Elliott Carter, transformational theory, music theory pedagogy, and intersections of society, music, and multimedia.