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History & Thanks

In 1987 I performed in a theatrical production called “The Third Ascent”, doing original avant-garde music using a piano ”harp”; the strings and soundboard as removed from a grand piano; leaving no piano keys or hammers at all. I played with finger plucks, hammer blows, strokes, strikes, and wished I had a way to make it sound continuously.  In 1989 the show was remounted again; due to its success we toured it across Canada ending at the National Arts Centre.   This time I investigated an idea I had had: a magnetic drive system using electromagnets. I first tried a commercially available device called an "Ebow" (which is used to get guitars to have endless sustain), but on the piano strings it was  very weak. It also only made one sort of sound, and I as a synthesizer fan wanted my dream device to make many different sounds. As magnetic drive clearly worked, I made my very own simple test version with a single magnet , and got sound, but as the system was clearly no where near usability for the  "Third Ascent" tour I left the idea as a "proof of concept", having stored it away for possible future reference.

​After many years of creating music for television, I decided to renew myself by returning to university for a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Arts.  As I was already advanced with sound synthesis and electronic production, I chose to study music for the acoustic piano to make myself revisit the basics.  As graduation approached, I had to stage a performance of my compositions. I wanted to use many sounds for my actual concert performance, so people suggested I write for music and synthesizer, but I wanted to “stick to my guns” and write only music using sounds that could be produced with physical object of the piano.  I considered the whole “prepared piano” technique but did not feel it had enough tonal variety to give me what I still wanted: an “acoustic synthesizer”!

Clearly, magnetic drive worked to produce continuous tones on the strings of a piano “harp”; the question was “could I in practice use that ability to make activated strings create a huge variety of different sounds, as the sound producing mechanism for an “acoustic synthesizer”?.  I didn’t just want to be able to have the piano strings sound continuously like a louder Ebow (as an extension of the abilities of a conventional piano); what I really wanted was to have a synthesizer making many new sounds! The physics of the situation told me that it could.

When I revisited the “electromagnetically driven piano” idea, I found that there had been research and work in the area. A paper I read mentioned an attempt as far back as 1866, so clearly my "Third Ascent" idea was not the first time this was tried! Much more recently, Per Bloland  created his "Electromagnetically-Prepared Piano" (a 12 magnet system),  and Andrew Mcpherson his “Magnetic Resonator Piano”, each with different priorities for augmentation of tonal and performance possibilities of an otherwise conventional piano. The Spectrum Piano instead was designed to be an totally hammer-less acoustic synthesizer (rather than an "augmentation" of a traditional piano), with the ability to create many unique (hammerless) sounds as the priority. It was designed to work perfectly on a piano "harp"  (such as I used in 1987/89), but as a conventional piano is the obviously convenient "host" for the mechanism I created I have designed it to work using the strings and soundboard “harp” of a normal piano; no piano destruction required!! The Spectrum Piano is all about new sounds, rather than new performance possibilities for a pianist.

​Thus, I spent two years researching and building my “Spectrum Piano” mechanism, which allowed me to have many new sounds at my concert, yet still to have to only have written for, and performed with, an acoustic piano.  This allowed me to “stick to my guns”… I wanted to use only the physical object of an acoustic piano, as that represented my studies, but wanted to have many sounds, so the answer was to change the piano itself.

I would like to thank my supervisors, Professor Owen Underhill and Professor Arne Eigenfeldt. Professor Underhill, as my senior supervisor, has provided invaluable advice and musical knowledge, especially in the area of music theory, notation and contemporary influences.  In the creation of the Spectrum Piano, I thank above all Andrew McPherson, who provided me with a set of pcbs and components for his custom Magnetic Resonance power amplifiers, and then followed up with technical support and encouragement in the project. Andrew Czink, thanks for performing in the inaugural concert, your endless interest in the instrument, and for working with me in our avant-garde music duo "Bent". Mike Foster, thanks for your mastering work, and recording skills. Sabrina Fox, thank you above all for your support for the last quarter century!

Doug Blackley

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