New Possibilities For Upright Pianos: Real-time Adjustable Microtones, Harmonics, Multiphonics, and More. Lecture-Recital by Douglas Jurs (January 2021)

  • Issue: Volume 61, No.2
  • DOI:


My name is Doug Jurs of Allegheny College. It feels a little bit strange to be giving a lecture recital in my cramped home office on a forty year old upright that hasn’t been tuned in over a year. But in this strange era of coronavirus quarantine, adaptability is important. And it’s really because of the restrictions of the last twelve months, with cancelled concerts and no more social obligations to worry about, that I’ve been able to dedicate quite a bit of time to the ideas that I’ll be talking about today, using the very piano where these ideas took shape.

The title of this lecture recital is “New Possibilities for Upright Pianos: Real-time adjustable microtones, harmonics, multiphonics and more.” The goal of this lecture recital is to present previously unexplored extended techniques specifically for upright pianos, extended techniques that I think open up a whole new world of possibilities of sound for composers and performers alike, and techniques that I think hold both practical and musical improvements when compare to extended techniques on grand pianos.

The way I’ll be presenting these techniques today is through four of what I’m calling, “Sound Etudes,” and these are pieces that I’ve devised that exist somewhere between dry, technical demonstration and fully composed pieces. I’m specifically limiting the notes I’m using in these pieces so that full attention can be given to the continuously adjustable and multifaceted qualities of sound that the techniques engender. 

Before I talk in detail about these pieces I’d like to start with the first piece. In between each piece I’m going to give a thorough and visual demonstration of the specific things that I’m doing to create the sounds that you hear. Just a point of clarification before I play the first piece; you’ll notice that I have opened up the piano up here above the keyboard. I’m actually not going to be utilizing that part of the instrument. You can find a few people on YouTube that have already experimented with some extended techniques on this part of an upright. Just a few of them: you can do the “Aeolian Harp” Henry Cowell strumming of strings; you can do basic muting effects, subtle changes of timbre by manipulating the string with your finger.  But I find that these aren’t really new sounds. These are sounds that we can get equally on a grand piano - it’s a little bit harder on grand piano, but very similar to the sounds that we can get already and that composers have already explored. So as you might guess, I’m instead going to be exploring this area underneath the keyboard, and I’m going to begin with an etude on one note. I’ve chosen D1 as our note. There are many possibilities I could have chosen, I’ve just arbitrarily chosen D1. So I hope you like this piece. I will play first, then I’m going to change the camera angle and give a little bit more of a clear description of what we’re working with in these techniques.

[3:33] Etude #1

My hope is that you heard some sounds you haven’t heard before from a piano in that First Etude on a single note. What I want to do now is to take you “under the hood” as it were, to show you the specifics of what part of the instrument I’m accessing to get the sounds that I’m getting. What you see here is a stringing system that you’ll find on any upright piano, from the smallest, oldest spinet to the highest end upright you can find. I’ve tried 100 year old instruments that haven’t been tuned in decades, to the best instruments you can find that are uprights. They all have more or less the same stringing setup. This is a Yamaha U3 and it’s about 40 years old. We have the lowest bass strings here on the top; A0 at the bottom, going all the way up to Bb2, which is 26 different pitches that we have access to. We also have these higher pitch strings over here that we can also access and alter. This goes from B2 to only a tiny inch or so of F#3, so eight more pitches. So that gives us a total of 34 pitches that we have access to, with our feet underneath the keyboard.

The lowest A0 has approximately 21 visible inches of string that we have access to with our foot, progressively getting smaller so that by the time we get to Bb2 we’ve got about 12.5 inches of visible string. We also have approximately three additional inches that we can stick our foot further up. So then, a total of approximately 24 inches when we have the lowest A here, and again here about 15 and a half inches of string that we can alter. I’m going to change the camera angle in a minute here to show you precisely how much pitch alteration we can get on each of these notes. Obviously less room here to navigate - this first string about 12 inches, even a little bit less than 12 inches - going all the way to that F#3 which is only about an inch of available string for alteration. But still it’s pretty incredible how much variation you can get just with these small amounts of string, and in my second Etude I’m going to utilize these strings to show you what’s possible, even with just a small amount of space. 

Before I show you the specifics of what happened in that first Etude and show you the second Etude, I wanted to talk about the four variables we use to create different sounds with these techniques. Obviously I’m not going to refer to the numerous things that we do on a keyboard: attack, duration, release, pedaling. One thing I love about these techniques is that I can still play the piano like a pianist, whereas on a grand piano I can’t; I’m having to lean over the instrument in an uncomfortable posture and play with one hand on the keyboard. I can still play like a pianist with these techniques. There are four things that we need to think about when manipulating these strings down here: 1) The first is placement on the string. If I’m touching the string up here versus down here it’s going to sound different. It’s going to have a different pitch; 2) The amount of pressure is the second. This is another thing that I think is so much better than grand pianos. When you’re dealing with your squishy hands on a grand piano having to bend over and alter strings, you can only vary the pressure so much. You’re not going to get a variation of frequency very much. The timbre might be able to be shifted a little bit, but you’re not going be able to change the pitch like you can with these techniques. With my foot, I have so many more possibilities of variances of pressure that I can provide to a string; 3) Contact point is a big one in these techniques. We can go from full foot, which is going to give a more of a muted percussive sound, and I can gradually lessen the amount of contact with the string, which is going to give you an almost an infinite number of timbral possibilities based on that contact point and how big it is, all the way to a very small contact point for harmonics which I’ll be talking about in my next Etude; 4) And then finally the fourth variable, which for me has probably been the most fun to explore, is the material that you’re using the contact the string.

Not only is it uncomfortable on a grand piano to play with my hands, but you also aren’t getting a lot of variety of sounds, largely because of the squishy softness of our hands (and our bare feet, by the way. I don’t use my bare feet on these at all, because they’re kind of squishy. It acts as a muting effect. I can’t alter the pitch a whole lot with my bare foot). So, we have materials at our disposal that we can play with to create different sound effects. I have settled on this somewhat “granola” looking rope sandal as my standard tool for these techniques. Several reasons I like this: for one, I love how flexible it is. If you look at the video of that first Etude you can see, sometimes my foot is fairly flat against the strings. Sometimes I have less than my foot and I’m able to bend it a lot. Obviously it’s flat, which is critically important for consistency, So you know what you’re getting out of your contact point. And there’s something about this rope sandal that has that perfect balance between firmness and softness. So I’m going to play with a wooden sandal later (which is a wild sound) but it’s totally different. This has a nice sort of mellow tone, a little bit of the percussion aspect but also it’s firm enough where you get a really clear pitch out of the rope sandal.

I will demonstrate when I change the camera angle here in a minute; this is just a skateboard shoe. Again, I’m looking for flat soled shoes and skateboard shoes are also good because they’re pretty flexible.  If you’re skating, you have to be able to go at various angles with your feet. And this is a nice sound, actually a little bit more of a pure tone that I can get out of this shoe. The reason I don’t use it quite as much as the rope sandals is because it’s not quite as flexible, and the rubber is quite hard to slide on the string, so it’s a little bit harder to move. But this is another possible variation of material. I’m going to show you a wooden sandal in my fourth Etude, and then I’ll demonstrate a couple other experimental materials that I’ve used as well in my exploration. 

What I’d now like to do is to show the amount of pitch variance we have at our disposal with each of these strings. Beginning with the bottom pitches, A0 all the way up a tritone to around Eb1, we can vary up to a major seventh in our pitch. So for example, the first Etude was played on  D1. The pitch you first heard in the piece was C#2 (not perfectly in tune). And then I can just slide it all the way down, an unlimited amount of microtonal shifts during this descent. Then we have a full octave from E1 up to E2, where we have a minor seventh, so one semitone less of pitch variance available to us. So, here’s E1 and you’re going to hear I’m able to get up to D2 here, (actually in between a minor seventh and a major seventh). And then still a minor seventh by the time we get up to E2 (up to D3 when altered). And then our final pitches here with these lowest strings, we have a major sixth at our disposal so here’s the highest pitch B flat, I can get up to a g here. Then we’re dealing with these lower strings, you have a little bit less range, I’ll just talk about them I won’t show them. This B2 pitch at the very bottom and up to C sharp, about a perfect fourth; major third alterations possible from D3 to Eb3; and then the last three pitches are just a major second or minor second of variance at our disposal.

Now I’d like to take you through Etude #1 very quickly to show you the different techniques that I was demonstrating. At the very beginning, I was showing a pitch oscillation.

[15:50] That’s our fundamental D pitch. At the very beginning I was shifting between C sharp and C2 simply through foot pressure, just at the toe of the foot. You can hear it oscillating strictly through pressure.

[16:14] From there I did the microtonal descent and ascent back up. Then I demonstrated full foot contact point, alternation between heel and toe pressure.

[16:31] Here it’s a little more “thuddy” because of the large area of contact point.  From there I shifted gradually to just the very tip of the sandal, to create what I’m calling, “dirty harmonics.” As we move up in pitch with these strings, you can get more of a pure tone, but here you hear some multiphonics happening with this harmonic.

[17:00] Notice the shift in timbres as I make the journey. Then I demonstrated just the melodic possibilities with these techniques.

[17:28] You can make a little melody just on a single string. And the final effect that I showed was really borrowed from guitar technique, this muting effect where you let the string sound, then you mute it. Obviously I’m altering the pitch with that muted tone. You can alter the timing of the muting, having a “burp”  type effect or a more resonant effect. Finally I’d like to show what happens when we add other pitches to the equation, just the amount of possibilities. I’m going to begin with microtonal shadings here.

[18:28] I’m just going to play D pentascale (Applies foot alteration) So it’s a slightly out of tune F sharp at the bottom. Watch how I can adjust the tuning. You can also adjust the places of foot pressure so not only placement on the string but also places where the pressure is applied. I can vary the tone quality of the scale with the contact point (demonstrates various sounds). Countless possibilities of microtonal and timbral shifts happening. Then I wanted to show the muting effect with multiple notes. This is very much out of guitar technique.

[19:53] Here I’m going to play an E flat chord, and I’ll change the chord (various chord changes demonstrated). Really, really fun when you, if you’re wanting to play, sort of a driving percussive electric guitar style there. Finally I’ll close this camera angle with a demonstration of just a slight variance of tone that you get when using a rubber soled shoe. so I’ll do the same microtonal descent now with a rubber shoe. This gets a really nice pure tone on the way down.

[20:50] You might detect some very quiet multiphonics happening. I’m going to talk more about that with the wooden shoe where it’s very pronounced. You can hear the rubber catching a little bit. I’m getting some little squawks out of the string. But that’s just a demonstration of the subtly different sound that one gets with the rubber shoe. 

I’ll now be playing the second Etude, this is an etude on four notes. These notes are B2, C3, C#3 and D3.

[21:58] Etude #2

So briefly what you heard: I began with just a straight muting effect, roughly up a major third, obviously detuned quite a bit.

[24:40] You can hear it without the pedal, might be hard to hear the difference, but with the pedal. The second time through, I began the the microtonal descent; notice it is not just pitch, but timbral shifts happening as well.

[24:50] I’m not changing my attacks on the keyboard, but the sound is completely changing. Obviously, I can add that element of changing how loud or soft I play.

[25:16] Once I had that descent, I’m just demonstrating that I can move between pitch and sound on any of these notes. It’s a little nod to (Helmut) Lachenmann in his “(Ein) Kinderspiel” where he does that on the the top notes of the piano. Now we can do it on any of these notes, and can have a percussive effect.

[25:40] Then I tried to create a three layer texture where we have the ostinato pitches, the percussive effects here, and what I’m calling a “mumble,” a variation on the muting effect I demonstrated earlier, to give sort of that chaotic sort of stuttering effect. It reminds me a little bit of (Gyorgy) Ligeti’s “Touches Bloquées” from his Etudes, but now we’re doing it with our foot instead of with techniques up here. And then finally (probably my favorite); showing different timbres on this B, shifting into that tip of the sandal contact point.

[26:19] We can really get a pretty pure harmonic when we get to these higher pitches. You’ll notice if I press too hard, it’s not a harmonic. It needs to be a light touch.

[26:53] You can get a little bit of that second (9th partial) there and then showing again different levels of interaction I can have: I can do percussion, muted pitches, all with this harmonic at the same time, exploring different registers of the instrument.

Before playing my third Etude, I wanted to highlight three special effects that I’m not featuring specifically in any of my pieces.

The first one I’m calling the Aeolian Harp, and this is an homage to Henry Cowell, whose 1923 piece, “Aeolian Harp” was one of our first examples of extended techniques inside of the piano. Of course the shortcoming of doing this on a grand piano is you can’t really play the instrument as it was intended. You have to play with one hand. On the keyboard Wall Street, bending over the grand piano and strumming with the other hand What I really like with these new techniques is that I can do various things: I can play big chords - now, I suppose a shortcoming of these techniques is I’m limited to the lower registers - but I can play more than just a three or four note chord.

[28:23] There I’m just playing a big D major chord and strumming with my foot there. I can also play the piano as it was intended; I can strum with my foot and play some of these low chords while playing a little melody with my other hand. So that’s the foot version of the Aeolian harp technique.

The second special effect I wanted to highlight is a weird one, but it’s a really cool one. And this I just call the “Interference Buzz” and it utilizes the fact that, as we’ve noticed, the strings are cross strung on the piano with those higher strings going actually behind those bass strings. So if you press with just the right amount of pressure on this lowest string, you can actually come into contact with those strings behind it and create this pretty wicked sounding buzz (29:35). And there is a little bit of variation,  like if I move it up, there is going be a little bit of a different sound. A pretty hollow sound there.

[29:45] All the way down here it’s going to be a little different, a little bit more “thuddy” at the bottom.

[29:54] Again, that’s the Interference Buzz.

And then finally, the third special effect is a little homage to Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil.” At the very beginning of that song, Van Halen plays a little lick on the strings above the bridge right by the nut, and it’s this very special effect at the beginning of that song. And this is a similar scenario here where here’s the bridge connecting our pitch strings here. But then here are the hitch pins where we’ve got these randomly pitch strings.

[30:39] Quite a haunting effect with those. It’s quite soft, so I think this would work in a small performance hall. If playing in a big hall, it would probably need to be amplified. And again these are just randomly tuned so it has this wonderful sort of wind chime effect with those hitch pin strings. So those are three special effects that I’ve discovered in the course of exploring these new techniques.

You may have noticed in my first two Etudes that all of the string manipulations inside of the piano were being done with one foot, so that the other foot is free to use the pedal. In general with these techniques, quite a bit of pedal is usually welcome for added resonance. But I wanted to show you in my third Etude a few more possibilities when you can use both feet inside the piano. Almost all upright pianos I’ve come across have a similar pedaling system where you press the pedal down and then there’s this long lever that lifts and that’s what lifts the damper off the strings. So if you just create a simple wedge or even find a piece of wood that is the right size - I’ve made this out of my kids’ Legos - if you put this under the lever on the side, that creates an open pedal. So, this is just a short improvisational Etude showing off a couple of the interactions you can create when both feet are playing with the strings inside the piano. Etude #3 for open pedal:

[32:39] Etude #3

For my final Sound Etude in this lecture recital I’m going to be working with a material that for me produces a shockingly different experience. I didn’t discover this until several months into these explorations when I saw my kids’ wood blocks sitting around the house and I thought, “What would happen if I press that wood block against the strings and did my thing?” and I was pretty shocked at the results. So I had a friend of mine who is a furniture maker build me some wooden, flat-soled sandals. You can find these on the internet, by the way; if you just google “Wooden asphalt shoes,” you’ll get something very similar to this. For this Etude I’m actually going to narrate as I play. There are so many wild shifts of sound that you can create with these wooden sandals that it would take too long to talk about it afterwards, so I’m going to be talking about the techniques as I’m doing them in this case. I’m going to open with one note, I’ll use D1 again. It’s going to begin with a full sandal contact point, various levels of pressure, which I’ll narrate. And then I’m going to, over time, shift the amount of contact point on the string, gradually add more pitches, and, again, narrate as I go:

[36:00] Etude #4 with narration

You can probably see how I could get lost doing this for hours at a time. 

I wanted to conclude this lecture recital/demonstration by “celebrating” this profoundly strange time in human history that we find ourselves in. And I feel that a strange time like this requires some strange exploration, some strange experimentation. That’s really what this project has been for me. And so to conclude, I wanted to share a few strange materials that I’ve been working with to explore further soundworlds moving forward with these new techniques.

[43:39] I begin with this. That’s right, that is a heating vent attached to a prototype of a sandal that a friend made for me. On the bottom of the sandal there are Velcro fasteners, so I can remove this vent and put on a different material to experiment with other possibilities. I experimented with various metal materials - really dense metal I find is very similar to the wood - because this is a little bit less dense and has lots of different contact points, I found that it’s a slightly different sound.

[44:21] I really quite like it when it’s played softly.

[44:32] Or you can do the more percussive. I’ll just share one other example of material that I’ve been working with. I’ve been thinking about the four variables to create new sounds with these strings. I’ve been thinking a lot about contact point, especially with hard materials - the wooden sandal is a bigger contact point,  and obviously the big vent  is a huge contact point - and I can vary that a little bit but it’s not flexible so you can only do so much. So one thing that I’ve done is, with my rope sandals I’ve attached on one of them a Velcro strip, and on that strip, I can attach various different materials. So I’ve done small pieces of metal, even pieces of glass (I’m still working on that). But here is a plastic boom whacker.

[45:41] And I rather like the sound this makes. You’ll notice I can get a nice vibrato.

[45:45] A little bit of a woodblock but some other weirdness going on. 

So for me, this is a big part of the fun, experimenting with new ways of playing, expanding sonic possibilities with this instrument that I love, the piano. Enjoy this weird time, it’s a hard time, so be weird. Explore weird things. Thank you for listening to this lecture recital. If anybody has any questions about any of the techniques I’ve demonstrated tonight, please send me an email, and I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/12/2021

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