From Hyperpianos To Harmonious Handel: New Classical Albums

Feb 12, 2012
Originally published on February 16, 2012 9:36 am

What's the saying — the more things change, the more they stay the same? It seems that's how it goes in the ways we make music. MIT futurologist Tod Machover rethinks traditional instruments, coming up with new things like the hyperpiano; Pianist Michael Chertock gives it a go in an explosive excerpt below. And the piano itself, once considered a hi-tech invention, wasn't yet on the market when Handel published his keyboard suites. Lisa Smirnova makes a strong case for Handel's terrific harpsichord music using a modern Steinway. And then there's the original instrument — the human voice. For this visit to Weekends on All Things Considered, I opted for both adult and kids' voices — the exquisitely trained Tapiola Children's Choir sings music by compatriot Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, with his voluptuous and velvety baritone, sings a Rachmaninov romance for Valentine's Day.

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Time now for music, and NPR classical producer, Tom Huizenga, is back with some new recordings that he's pulled out of his mailbox recently, including this one.


RAZ: That is - Tom, can we just listen to this for the next eight minutes?

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: That's fine with me, Guy.

RAZ: It's beautiful. This is pianist Lisa Smirnova, and she's playing music from one of George Frideric Handel's keyboard suites. By the way, Tom, it's good to see you back here in the studio.

HUIZENGA: Great to be back, Guy.

RAZ: This sounds familiar.

HUIZENGA: I thought you might recognize it. It's the - the movement has come to be known as "The Harmonious Blacksmith" but it's really the only familiar tune from Handel's collection of eight keyboard suites that are on this new two-CD set. You know, most pianists, harpsichordists, too, I should add, because this music was written for the harpsichord, I mean, if they're going to play baroque keyboard music, they usually choose music by the big man himself.

RAZ: The big man, meaning Johann Sebastian Bach.

HUIZENGA: That's right. But, you know, I'm really glad that this album is out because I think it's going to turn a lot of people on to a wide variety of very cool music that is contained here in these suites.

RAZ: OK. Well, let's hear some of that variety you're talking about.

HUIZENGA: OK. Each of these suites - I think they kind of have a personality of their own, dictated mostly by how Handel chooses the movement. So there was a kind of a standard way to set up a baroque keyboard suite, but Handel rarely follows that. For instance, suites usually start with like an imposing prelude, but listen to how Handel begins this suite number two with this gorgeous slow movement where the melody just floats on air.


RAZ: I couldn't have said it better myself. It floats on air. It's beautiful.

HUIZENGA: Want to try something a little more up-tempo?

RAZ: Yeah, absolutely.

HUIZENGA: OK. Let's try one of Handel's "Gigues" because these are kind of dance type movements, you know. They often cap off a keyboard suite like these and here's the "Gigue" from Suite No. 1.


RAZ: That's so delicate, you know? You just - you can imagine her fingers just kind of like dancing on those keys, Tom. The pianist is Lisa Smirnova, and she's playing Handel's keyboard suites. This is one of the recordings that our friend and NPR classical music producer Tom Huizenga has been listening to recently. Tom, what else have you brought us?

HUIZENGA: Ready for a big change?

RAZ: Absolutely.

HUIZENGA: OK. Who doesn't love a kids' choir, right?



RAZ: (Singing) We don't need on education. Tom, this sounds like Pink Floyd, man.


RAZ: This is...

HUIZENGA: I never thought of it that way.

RAZ: This is not the Pink Floyd.

HUIZENGA: No. They're singing in Finnish, actually.

RAZ: Ah. OK.

HUIZENGA: And it's a new release by the Tapiola Children's Choir, a choir founded in Finland back in 1963. This record is not devoted to Roger Waters but instead to Finland' greatest living composer whose name is Einojuhani Rautavaara, and this little ditty is about a pig that comes from a short cycle of songs that Rautavaara wrote for this choir back in 1973.

RAZ: Pig like just a domesticated pig or there's a...

HUIZENGA: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: ...pig story there or just a...

HUIZENGA: My kids like pigs.

RAZ: Yeah. My kids like pigs. These kids sound pretty great, actually.

HUIZENGA: They are good. You know, the Finns are totally into singing. There's a huge singing culture and singing competitions in Finland. And actually, the Finns are totally into music. The people and the government, they actually believe that music education is a basic human right.

RAZ: Give me another song from this record, because I'd be interested to hear what else they do.

HUIZENGA: All right. Here's one called "The Carpenter's Son," and it's a song that starts out, innocently enough, with a choir repeating the Finnish word for shavings, like wood shavings, and they're mimicking the back and forth sound of the carpenter shaving the wood with his plane.


RAZ: I'm telling you, Tom, it's just a matter of time before progressive rockers discover these guys as a background choir.

HUIZENGA: Or, you know, hip-hop people could sample it.

RAZ: Absolutely.

HUIZENGA: They're perfect.

RAZ: That's the Tapiola Choir from Finland with a new release. It's one that our friend Tom Huizenga has been listening to lately. Tom is the classical producer with NPR Music. Tom, what else you got?

HUIZENGA: How about a hyper piano?



RAZ: Tom, that hyperpiano sounds like it's medicated, not that hyper.


HUIZENGA: But just wait. In a moment, we'll hear it in a full cry mode, so to speak, Guy.

RAZ: All right.

HUIZENGA: This hyperpiano, like the hypercello and the hyperviolin, is the brainchild of the composer of this piece, Tod Machover. He's a professor of music at MIT's media lab, and that's where he heads up this opera of the future group, and that's where he created these hyper instruments, which, basically, they use technology to extend their sounds and their reach and their expressive possibilities.

RAZ: So is this like a prepared piano, like he's put things into the...

HUIZENGA: No, not so much. He starts with a Yamaha Disklavier grand piano, which is a sophisticated player piano, and he's created this software that when the pianist, and in this case it's Michael Chertock we're listening to, when he plays a note, that note can do several things.

It could trigger a volley of additional predetermined notes, which will be played by the Disklavier, and/or the software could, like, process those notes played, making them sound different, or process them and send them back to be played again by the Disklavier. And it also actually allows for notes, like, to multiply, for them to speed up, almost like fireworks, and we can hear that in this final movement of Machover's piece called "Jeux Deux." We'll hear the piano by itself, kind of, for just a few moments, and then - well, you'll hear it.


RAZ: Wow. I like that. I did not hear that coming, did not expect that explosion.

HUIZENGA: Lots of notes.

RAZ: That's a piece for hyperpiano and orchestra. It's by Tod Machover. That's Tom Huizenga. He's the classical producer at NPR Music. You can hear more about his picks today at the blog Deceptive Cadence and you can find that at Tom, thanks again.

HUIZENGA: Guy, it's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.