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Playing a Keyboard with a Phone Book

Peter Speer puts a little pressure on the definition of a live performance.

Just how little action can one take and still be considered a performer? If yesterday’s featured video nudged at the inherent idea of a “live” performance by showing generative software mid-process (no human required), then today’s video re-introduces human physical interaction but in a very simple way.

The video, titled “Yellow Pages Tone Cluster,” begins with a humorous touch worthy of John Cage: A few seconds in, the artist Peter Speer places a massive phone book, its front cover ripped off, atop an electric keyboard, and thus sets in motion a broad, dense uber-chord that plays for nearly 11 minutes straight.

“Motion” may not be the right word. What the phone book creates on the keyboard is a multi-octave held chord, quite the opposite of motion. That chord changes only due to the ear’s sensitivity to overtones and waveforms, and Speer’s subsequent small changes. He alters the chord as it proceeds. Specifics aren’t laid out at the video link (the only text is “The lost art of playing a keyboard with a book”), but as it goes the organ tone takes on beading and phase-shifting, glitch wonderment and reduction to a sheer shimmer. And at then end Speer removes the phone book. The ceremonial bow is implied.

One side note: This video is a good example of how the very thing that can make computer music a tough sell in a concert setting works exceptionally well on streaming services like YouTube and Vimeo, where the audience has such GoPro-style proximity (“goproximity”?) to the sort of small gestures that are lost with a live audience. The only way something like this would register in front of a group of people is if there were an effort made to include a properly framed live video projection during the performance — of course, while the scale would make the performer’s movements legible in concert, it would also potentially overstate their gravitas. (I should mention, I’ve seen plenty of shows where this sort of projection occurs but it’s usually for more flamboyant playing styles and often isn’t framed particularly well.)

Unfortunately I can’t add this to my “Ambient Performances” playlist because the playlist is on YouTube and this video is on vimeo.com. More from Peter Speer, who’s based in Chicago, Illinois, at diode-ring.com. Video found in a discussion about minimal physical mixing consoles at llllllll.co.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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