This Piano Is Played By Clouds | david bowen

cloud piano from david bowen on Vimeo.

Are clouds passing overhead musical?

I found the cloud piano via a short article at Co.Design. I really enjoy the installation, if not the article I found it in. The author tries to link this art installation to the works of 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg. I can understand how this piece sounds like the work of an atonal composer. Perhaps a better comparison would be with the works of John Cage. Cage tried to remove the composer—the ego—from his compositions, favoring chance operations. Mapping the movements of clouds overhead to a robotic armateur playing a piano below sounds pretty chance-like to me.

Is the I Ching musical?

Though I enjoy Cage’s music, I often struggle with his philosophical view of what music is, and how it should be created. Isn’t deciding to use chance operations in composition just as much of an ego/composer-centric decision as choosing which chords and pitches one wants to string together?

If anything, Cage and Schoenberg are linked by their conviction that there had to be more possibilities for musical composition than the 12 notes that make up the Western Classical Music tradition. Schoenberg developed a new theoretical framework for utilizing these limited resources. Cage expanded these resources by including all sounds as valid musical expressions.

Steve Reich took yet another approach: standard musical techniques applied to non-standard sounds. During one of my first years teaching, my students and I set up Reich’s “Pendulum Music” in a squash court for Family Weekend. This piece is created through the feedback tones created by swinging microphones above speakers. When gravity brings the mics to a stop, the piece is over. The most valuable part of the experience for me was setting up the piece; I felt like we were doing a science experiment! Unfortunately, the video from our performance was ruined when the camcorder battery ran out. We re-staged it before cleaning up the gear, missing just the very end of the performance due to YouTube’s old media length restrictions.

If you ascribe to the definition that music is nothing more than organized sound, it does not have to be pretty to be music. Hearing the myriad sounds around us in a new context is a unifying principle of all of these works, and one that helps keep an ever expanding musical culture alive.