The unveiling of an instrument is quite a rare event in the twenty first century so I was delighted to be asked to investigate the relatively new AirPiano; could it be a suitable Christmas gift? A revolutionary concept in music technology, the AirPiano is nothing like the familiar set up of a keyboard instrument. It draws on computer technology for inspiration and is sometimes referred to by its nickname, ‘the magic plank’. Invented by Israeli musician and engineer Omer Yosha, the AirPiano was developed in Berlin by Kesem Design and is built from walnut wood, dark red acrylic glass and RoHS compliant components.
The instrument is an innovative MIDI and OSC controller which allows the performer to trigger invisible keys and faders in mid air. There aren’t any actual piano keys so fingers are redundant. Instead hands ‘hover’ over the plank, which consists of a set of 8 upward-facing proximity sensors that pick up the distance of a player’s hands from the base unit, sending info to a computer and producing pre-programmed sounds. The sensors create up to 24 virtual keys and 8 virtual faders and the 40 LEDs provide easy orientation and visual feedback. According to the AirPiano website the instrument is ‘the first musical interface to introduce an intuitive and simple touch-free interaction’.
The AirPiano is championed by a Scottish musician and composer Jo Hamiliton. Jo, a multi-instrumentalist, is the first artist in the world to work with the AirPiano. She released her album Gown in September 2009 to critical acclaim and now demonstrates the AirPiano around the world. ‘I am not a particularly tech-minded girl’ she says, ‘I’ve always thought of it as a grid of buttons that hover, invisibly, above this…. plank’. ‘Playing is almost dance-like. You have to think about the choreography of a piece’. ‘What appealed to me first was the simplicity of it, the fact that you were literally plucking sounds out of the air’ says Hamilton. Observing the ‘AirPianist’ in action seems reminiscent of futuristic sci-fi TV programmes like Star Trek. Good spatial awareness seems necessary as does refined limb control and movement.
So how does it sound? Listening to some of the works that have been written for the AirPiano such as Hamilton’s Alive, Alive, I am immediately reminded of Jean Michel Jarre’s innovations. All synthy hums and ethereal, delicate, dreamy electronic drowns and bell-like chimes beneath Jo’s low vocals. It is very effective and I enjoy this style of music however it is not for those who wish to play a keyboard in the traditional sense. The instrument produces no sound on its own; it has to be linked up to a computer and it isn’t for the inexperienced beginner. Musicians who enjoy experimenting with different sounds and concepts will love this idea. It certainly has a novelty value and is an interesting and innovative addition to the music technology scene. Unfortunately, at around £900, I don’t think it will be in my Christmas stocking!