Spiritual séance by Steinway & Sons: Horowitz and Gould playing live at your home

24 Jun 2016

Until now, there were two weighty disadvantages of using electronic techologies in classical music: artificial sound and dead interpretation if it produced by computer program. “Steinway & Sons” dismissed both of these disadvantages in one fell swoop. They managed to successfully combine electronic and digital technologies with live sound and interpretation.


How was this achieved?


A special system was invented to measure and digitize what is happening inside the piano while someone is playing it. The system, called Spirio, is being installed into traditional Steinway piano, records all the movements of each of 88 hammers and 2 pedals operated by a man in the course of interpreting the piece. The result of the given interpretation is presented as a digital code.


The second step of the idea is to drive the process in opposite direction – from digital code to mechanical movements of the hammers.  Spirio makes the hammers and pedals to move without live player, according to the previously produced digital code. The power, velocity and the consequence of these movements are exactly the same as they were under the hands of the player. Therefore, the outcome is live a sound replica of the initial interpretation.


Here you can have the FAQ about the technology and the promo clip on its Canadian public launch.



According to the company, the possibilities of this revolutionary technology are endless. This is not far from being true.  Despite some subtle factors, such as acoustics of the hall where replicating instrument is set, or the inevitable differences between instruments, which are not taken into account, the quality of sound replicas by Spirio is incredible.


As I remember, Grigory Sokolov once said in the interview that he is able to distinguish more than 300 gradations of piano sound. Spirio distinguishes 1020 gradations of piano sound, measuring the velocity of each hammer up to 800 times per second. It also distinguishes 256 positions each pedal, monitoring them 100 times per second. The precision which is far beyond human abilities.


The main problem with the Steinway Spirio, for now, seems to be not as much the quality and preceision of sound producion as its cost, $110,000 a piece. Nevertheless, it can be expected that the technology will seriously affect the piano world over time.


Here are a few resons why:


 1. Historical precedent. Steinway Spirio has its predecessor in self-player piano which was very popular in pre-gramophone era and onwards to mid XX. The cost of those machines, in scaled prices, was actually comparable to that of Spirio. Being a new kind of self-played piano, the Spirio can analogically get a spread in numerous places of entertainment and rest, and more to that, at business and artistic venues, conferences, exhibitions, hospitals, hotels, airports, cruise ships etc. The crucial difference from its antique predecessor is the ability of Spirio to provide the music of highest artistic quality.  It implies, and that is the price for perfection, the unemployment of the great deal of professional pianists.


2. Education and research. The Steinway Spirio can take the process of studying piano on a new level. The best living and historical masters can be heared and analysed immediately on site, in the classroom, in record library, in museum, at home.  Eminent professors can give their lessons, master classes or teach privately sitting on the other side of the world. Unlike teaching via Skype, notably popular at the moment, teaching by two or more Spirio pianos connected via the internet looks much more preferable since it gives to everyone an immediate sensory input of seeing, hearing and even touching what is happening on the keyboard.


3. Concert experience. The Met live opera broadcasting illustrates how could it be with Spirio. One can play, let’s say, in Carnegi hall but live replica of the playing can be simultaneously produced in numerous concert halls all over the world .


It may look a bit weird to have a concert hall with piano playing without a pianist but, in the end, you have to decide whether you want to listen live sound by Murray Perahia or Lukas Debargue or you want to see live facial expressions or dress (or its absence) of the next laureate of the next competition. Though, maybe both chalenges are worth attention)).


Meanwhile, the most interesting outcomes of live sound broadcasting by Spirio can be not in public but in private concertizing and private listening. Actually, in the sphere of sound, Steinway Spirio piano is doing something  similar to what is doing  GoPro camera in the sphere of video.  You don’t need to be physically present at the place, you may enjoy live broadcasted performance anywhere where the Spirio is accessible, including your home.


In the same way, the artist may play from his home as well.  Had Glenn Gould the Steinway Spirio in his studio, it is possibly, we would have another situation with his public performance.


4. Musical industry. The Spirio technology allows the performer and listener to get rid of traditional intermediator - concert agency, concert hall administration, recording company, retailer, as well as of oversight entities of any kind. This may noticeably contribute to ongoing reshaping of musical industry.


Spirio technology potentially worsens the situation with live attendance and, probably enhances the crisis of public concert as a form of consuming classical music.


“Steinway Spirio transports the listener to any of the world’s greatest concert halls, without leaving their home” (Spirio FAQ).


The community of concert pianists is also supposed to be affected. Since the most renowned and interesting artists are becoming easily accessible, the others are growing less in demand. It gives additional chances for young interesting artists regardless of their rewards and critique, but sends not so happy news to the owners of artificial reputations generated by agencies and questionable competitions.


The changes in musical labour market and in the musical industry on the whole are already taking place. There is currently not foreseeable what will consumption of classical music look like in the future, but if our future is a networked society and virtual reality, the Steinway Spirio is totally relevant to it.


5. Historical reconstruction. What is kind of miracle, the Steinway Spitio innovation is actually reviving piano geniuses of the past. Being combined with a Zenph technology, a hi-end product of the startup bought by “Steinway & Sons” some years ago, it gives the possibility to use common gramophone or LP record to set the Spirio keyboard mechanism in motion. This potentially brings all of piano legacy to live instrumental reproduction. Some of classical and jazz legends are already on the market. From here on out, Horowitz and Gould regain the ability to push the keys of the keyboard, and it may be the keyboard of your own instrument.     

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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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© Yevgeny Chepovetsky 2015-2017