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My first experience with a piano was hearing one hit a concrete floor.

I was a toddler, born in a northern Minnesota mining town— it was the area called the Iron Range, where in between cold, snowy winters miners would dig ore and put it on freight trains bound for Duluth, where it would be sent by ship across Lake Superior to eventually be unloaded and smelted in Gary, Indiana. My birthday is in April and there was usually snow on the ground then. Heck, it once snowed on a Fourth of July parade in my town. It was a beautiful, piney area, and not at all one that imagined itself producing pianists, or composers.

The piano I heard hit the floor

was the one my parents, having middle-class aspirations, had bought from their landlord, so that my sister and I might learn to play. It was in the basement of the house we were renting from him, and in the kind of condition that makes a piano tuner imagine the cold drink he’s going to pour when he finally gets home. It had cost $50.

The price did not include the pains required to be taken by a tuner, or even the effort of moving it up the stairs. For that— the moving, not the tuning— my father had to assemble a group of five friends on Saturday morning. Five burly miners and my dad. They gathered upstairs and did the thing where they all chatted until enough time had passed to form that mysterious and necessary bond which is required anywhere in the world, between any group of people, before any favour, such as moving a piano, can begin. Once they felt in their souls that this was friendship and not work, they went downstairs and started the slightly faster process of determining how the piano was to come up the stairs.

Being small I wasn’t allowed to do more than peer down from the top of the stairs.

I was fascinated by that basement, those stairs. And now all these men, their other-house smells still lingering in the living room, were down there talking. Then came the sounds of them shifting and scraping the piano over the floor. Then came the noise. There might have been a quick intake of breath? A muffled swear? I can’t be certain, but then the piano came down with a weirdly tuneful bang on one of its corners. It couldn’t have been more than a few inches off the floor, or it would have been destroyed. But even a few inches is plenty of distance to accelerate, when you’re a piano.

There must have been swearing, although the next thing I remember the piano was on the stairs, and with more huffing and puffing and sweating and shoving than I’d ever previously imagined, the dusty, cobwebby, ornate 19th-century upright piano tilted its way into my living room. The mildewy smell pushed out the men-who-aren’t-my-dad smell and I stared at the instrument. The bottom piece that’s meant to cover the strings was missing, so I could see the strings stretching down to the bottom of the cast-iron frame, dull gilding giving a halfhearted attempt at a gleam through the accumulated patina. 

Wow, I thought. Wow.

 

Larkhall playing piano as a small child
Larkhall, age 4, at the piano.

The piano was eventually cleaned and I listened to my parents attempting to work their way through the Howard Kasschau Piano Course, Book One (Revised Edition). One piece stood out, an easy-piano Tchaikovsky arrangement that sent my sister and I scurrying around in circles, faster and faster, each time we heard it.

There were no piano teachers in my town,

but my parents couldn’t have afforded one even if there had been. I made up songs: A Rocket Launch! A Thunderstorm! A Rocket Launch In A Thunderstorm! I loved to sit underneath the keyboard, in front of the exposed lower section of the strings, holding the pedal down with one knee while I plucked and scraped and banged the strings to get strange otherworldly sounds. My only wish was that I could somehow be there, doing that, while also playing the keys at the top.

The other musical thing I remember from that time is lying on the floor with my head right next to one of the stereo speakers, while my parents listened to classical radio. As a very small child I couldn’t stand listening to anything with singing in it. Why were those people doing those weird things with their voices? It’s tempting at this point to bring in a deconstruction of my parents’ tastes in music to perhaps jokingly explain this reaction, but regardless I lay there listening to Schubert or Mozart and waiting for the music to get really big and feel like it was going to, that it had to, explode out of the speakers and fill up the whole room, the whole world, with the hugeness of its sound. Tchaikovsky was the best for this, although at the time I didn’t know any of the composers’ names, I just knew when it was time to run and grab my portable tape recorder and tape over The Berenstain Bears Visit The Dentist Audiobook Side 2. I wanted to grab that music and keep it, somehow. I never listened to any of the tapes.

I just recorded more.

When I was in my first year of school my dad was fired for trying to unionise his workplace. This being the 1980s, firing someone for unionising was still illegal. Eventually they had to offer my dad his job again, and back pay. He accepted the back pay but decided that it wasn’t really the sort of job worth returning to, and anyway he had by then found a job in Colorado. So the family moved. It was the only time in my childhood I rode an airplane.

The Colorado job paid well enough that I got to start actual piano lessons, with a man named Andy. There were a lot of rhymes and some Saturday morning group lessons and while I think it was pretty good, compared with lots of formal lessons, I mostly remember being confused about why I was meant to be doing any of the things I was meant to be doing. Andy’s teenage son could climb the walls by putting one foot on each side of the narrow hallway and shuffling his way up. This, however, I thought was fantastic. Andy was less enthusiastic.

The lessons were downtown. Downtown had two key features: A dinosaur museum with animatronic foam-rubber dinosaurs, and a terrifying statue called something like “the horrors of war”. It was basically bits of metal welded together to form a man who looked like he’d rather not exist, but couldn’t do anything about it, and was also in terrible pain. I closed my eyes every time we walked past it. More relaxingly, there was also a bison statue constructed out of chrome car bumpers.

Our first year in Colorado we rented a big 1920s house a couple blocks from my elementary school. It turned out to be affordable because the house across the street ran a booming trade in street drugs. Once a man came to the house asking to use the phone to call an ambulance because someone had overdosed. We moved to a new neighbourhood for the next school year. That school’s claim to fame was being the only elementary school with a canyon on school property.

The following year we moved again,

this time back north to a postindustrial suburban wasteland spaced just between Chicago and Milwaukee. It wasn’t great: other kids were looking for someone to bully, which was perhaps unsurprising given how many of their dads were laid-off auto assembly plant workers. They didn’t want to listen to my Tchaikovsky tapes. Here, though, my mom got a job and so lessons because reliably affordable. I sunk all my energy into piano, then once I got my first synth, into figuring that out. When we finally got a computer my attention turned to figuring out how to connect the synth to it in order to write music, and then to trying my hand at composing music for my high school’s theatre productions.

When I arrived at music school

I was struck by the social strata of the other pianists. It felt like they’d all attended Juilliard precollege programs, or grew up with a Steinway grand piano in their living room or whatever. I practiced an unhealthy amount trying to compete with them, and by the end, although I managed to win a competition and perform with the university’s orchestra, I had burnt myself out. I was playing, but not really listening. It really highlighted the distinction between performance and musicality— I had worked on one but neglected the other.

As I worked as a freelance musician, I found myself drawn more and more toward what we’d now call “creative technology”. At the time, though, it wasn’t yet really a cohesive, named thing. I wrote a piece for solo percussion and electronic processing, a piece for tuba and sampler, a piece for a dance group where people would park their cars in a field and each tune into a different pirate radio frequency we’d be broadcasting on, so each car would hear a different version of the music. I scored films.

A lot of what I was doing was trying to make sense of new music as an institution:

Most of the music I heard from the 20th century seemed to be rooted in processing wartime trauma, which had then ossified into a received style

that anyone who wanted a grant had to bow down to. (In other words: your music could sound like anything, as long as it didn’t commit the cardinal sin of sounding too nice.)

Of course the popular music scene is the opposite of that, and so that’s where I ended up for a while. I played in all sorts of bands: synth-pop group Le Concorde, chamber-pop octet Canasta, garage-pop trio Please Please Wait, indie-weirdos Mira Mira. I even auditioned (twice) to play keyboards for OKGO. (Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet discovered any savoir-faire and so I don’t blame them for passing on me.) There’s something great about being in a band, but I always wanted to be doing something more detailed, something where I could really use my knowledge and ability from the classical world but without the heavy baggage that comes with the New Music respectability cascade.

As I began exploring technology’s place in music more and more, I eventually came to a point where I realised

I needed to actually learn to code.

At the Britten-Pears Centre’s New Music New Media programme, I wrote a piece called e to one million places, which was a kind of kitchen-sink summation of everything I’d learned up to that point: it was a piano piece with live reactive audio and video, using both generated and pre-recorded visuals and audio samples. The piece was done in Max, a program where you use virtual cables to connect nodes with specific functions in order to build your software. You can do so much working this way, but at a certain level of complexity everything just grinds to a halt. You want to change something, but where is it? 

I needed to get more control, so I started teaching myself to code. It was a natural fit, and I eventually found myself coding SingSmash, a game you play by singing, which led to a gig writing code for audio-recognition app Shazam.

Eventually, though, the creative world came calling again. My favourite part of working at Shazam had been making the home screen react to music as the app identified it. What if, I wondered, I could do that on a much larger scale?

What if a composition could have a generative digital artwork that was intimately paired with it?

That didn’t assume each performance was the same, but instead reacted, live, to each nuance?

 

Wow, you made it.

Thanks for reading my story. Now we’re friends forever.

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