By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

A few months ago, a new website and app went viral as millions of users performed great works from the classical piano canon using only a finger or two.

If video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band let gamers fantasize about being Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix, Touch Pianist allows users to do their best impression of Lang Lang or Van Cliburn.

The concept and design is remarkably simple. Each touch of the screen or stroke of the keyboard results in a note. The user focuses only on rhythms, and notes that are played simultaneously in harmony all come out with a single touch. This allows users who’ve never touched piano keys to author a somewhat passable rendition of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” after a few tries, but there is also a satisfying amount of depth. Mastering the polyrhythms of Debussy’s Arabasque No. 1 won’t come easy, but if a user wants to focus on expression more than technical fireworks they can try adding an unwritten dramatic pause to one of Satie’s Gymnopédies.

Touch Pianist was created by Batuhan Bozkurt, who describes himself as a sound artist, computer programmer, performer and composer (in no particular order.) The Istanbul-based creative coder said he tries to create one experiment a week that combines music and computers, and if he decides a particular prototype like Touch Pianist has potential, he’ll work for several more months to create an app version the public can interact with.

“I experiment a lot with computers and sound; it's what I do full time when I'm not working on client projects,” Bozkurt said. “I just try to come up with interesting means of human-computer interaction that includes sound and music in one way or another. "

“While computer music, computer aided composition and digital recording [or] arranging software is commonplace, all those things are aimed at experts or at people studying to be experts. Using computers to help the ‘rest of the people’ experience musical works and worlds is what I'd call an emerging field of work for creative coders.”

Finding ways to use technology or apps to enhance a user or entire audience’s appreciation for classical music is a hot item. Last January, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed its first concert with the aid of LiveNote, developed by Drexel University. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been closely following developers at University of Maryland, Baltimore County who are working on Octava.

Both programs are a 21st-century spin on outdated program notes, which provide annotations and listening guide information that is synced in live time during a performance. The concept of digital concert notes was first tried out with the PDA-based Concert Companion in 2003, but developers are hoping improved technology and an increasingly tech-fluent audience will give the idea new life.

For classical audiences outside the concert halls, several recent apps might offer a chance to explore a work in depth like the Beethoven Ninth Symphony app that offers a listening guide or the recently released Steve Reich Clapping Music app that allows users try their hands at performing Reich’s deceptively complicated rhythms.

Both listening guide apps and entertainment apps like Touch Pianist or Clapping Music might serve to enhance the relationship users have for various pieces. The visual language in Touch Pianist communicates a lot of the texture and structure of a piece to a user that they might not have appreciated when simply hearing a recording of a piece. So it could be seen as educational, but Bozkurt said that was not his goal.

“I have no preconceptions about what users should experience or learn while using it for this particular project. I find it highly entertaining, and I think there are others that feel the same way,” he said.

However, Bozkurt did say that he’s heard from a number of people who aren’t typical classical listeners who found themselves liking what they heard and even asking him for listening suggestions.

“I received so many messages from people saying that the app convinced them to start studying the piano and also from people saying they are returning to studying piano after many years of hiatus, only because of how Touch Pianist made them feel,” Bozkurt said.

For Bozkurt, the goal was about a user interaction with music. As a composer, Bozkurt doesn’t release traditional recordings. Instead he works in the area of generative artwork that allows users to experiment with systems. In 2004, Bozkurt composed/programmed Laconicism, which is described as a collection of procedural and interactive sound compositions that asks users to essentially collaborate with the composer to create the final music. More recently he has worked on a generative music sequencer called Otamata and a generative ambient instrument called Circuli.

“Everything I make, I make sure the user has some sort of agency, or else I'd release recorded music for people to listen to,” he said. “I just love to find ways of giving ‘superpowers’ to people — including myself.”

Superpowers might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s hard not to feel empowered when a few basic inputs result in a brand new composition or a modest if compelling version of Moonlight Sonata. On a broader scale, the potential of all of these new classical music apps might very well be through that kind of empowerment of users, whether that is by providing a guide for listeners in the concert hall or allowing users to do their best Franz Liszt impression with the tap of two fingers.