The Prepaid Piano & Replayed
A—The Prepaid Piano
Selections from the installation The Prepaid Piano, recorded
21–24 February 2013 during the Unmenschliche Musik/Inhuman
Music exhibition at Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, Berlin.
Inside a grand piano, five mobile telephones rest directly
on the strings in five different areas of the piano soundboard.
Calling any one of the telephones activates its vibration alarm,
thereby directly ‘playing’ the strings on which the phone
happens to be lying.
Audience members choose which parts of the piano are ‘played’
by calling any of the five telephones’ numbers — either from their
own mobile phones or from the provided stationary telephones.
Contact microphones attached to the piano’s soundboard pick
up the sounds of the mobile phones vibrating the piano strings
and pass them on to a voltage-controlled modular synthesizer.
Incoming signals above a pre-determined amplitude threshold
at the synthesizer’s input trigger its recording and modulation
functions. The incoming audio is looped and modulated by the
synthesizer and played back through stereo loudspeakers.
Subsequent calls to the phones produce new incoming signals
that gradually displace the previously recorded audio. Additional
layers of sounds are added by intermittently tapping and knocking
on the piano, manipulating its strings directly, repositioning the
mobile phones, etc.
Using the audio-to-MIDI function in Ableton Live software, the
Prepaid Piano recordings from side A are algorithmically analysed
and converted into MIDI notation. When applied to the harmonically
and rhythmically ambiguous Prepaid Piano recordings, the audio-
to-MIDI device’s inherent limitations are magnified. The MIDI
notation it generates under these circumstances is effectively
an original composition which (although distantly related to the
source material) is the result of the audio-to-MIDI algorithm’s
inability to correctly ‘read’ the information it is presented with.
The newly generated MIDI notation is then used to control and
play a synthesizer consisting of an oscillator, sampler, filter,
and effects modules.
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A few years ago I wrote an essay about how experimental music can
be really funny, even when — sometimes especially when — it’s
serious. Andrew Pekler’s work is proof. He investigates some heavy
sonic concepts, but there’s always a sense of play and absurdity
running though his music. Follow his winding lines closely and they
become a series of set-ups and punch lines, or a collage of word-
The title of his latest project, The Prepaid Piano, is a literal pun,
playing off the serious concept of Prepared Piano (i.e. piano altered
by placing objects inside it). But it’s not just a funny line. It reflects
Pekler’s process of placing prepaid cell phones inside a piano, which
vibrate the strings when the audience calls them. The result is
bubbling, cartoon-ish music that’s also eerie, dramatic, and evocative.
There are echoes of electronic music’s original prankster, Raymond
Scott. But Pekler has a unique brand of sonic alchemy, which plays
even better on side B, Replayed, where he ultra-MIDI’s the sounds
from side A. He sees humour where others might see seriousness
and vice versa, and that uncanny vision makes The Prepaid Piano
& Replayed one of the best albums of the year.
Marc Masters at The Out Door