Music

How cutting-edge pianist Zubin Kanga is pushing classical music into the future

The cutting-edge performer 's new album, Cyborg Pianist, is at the forefront of musical innovation

Zubin Kanga in blue jacket and gloves under a pink light

Zubin Kanga. Image: Raphaël Neal

Wearing black gauntlets and clasping long metal batons, Zubin Kanga’s look is a cross between a medieval knight and Edward Scissorhands. The pianist-composer activates unseen spaces in the belly of a grand piano, whipping invisible waves and playing the strings like a drum. Although plenty of avant-garde musicians have created sound from the piano’s guts – rather than the keys – Kanga’s style is different. As well as the sensor gloves, he incorporates technologies such as AI, a soundworld unveiled in his new album Cyborg Pianist.

At first glance, the piano doesn’t appear to have changed much since Beethoven’s time. With a wooden soundboard, metal strings and hammer-and-felt keys, the elements would be recognisable to 19th-century musicians. But materials have developed: it is no longer deemed desirable to have ivory-topped keys, for example (for ethical reasons of course, and that the synthetic materials are far superior).

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Decades of research has been undertaken to determine how to select wood for soundboards. And there are now hybrid pianos – instruments that are half-acoustic, half-digital – with the feel and sound of a grand piano and the look of an upright, or vice versa, plus electronic keyboards, pianos with larger or smaller keys, self-playing pianos and cases that are only limited by imagination (and budget).

However, development takes years – there’s no queue outside a piano shop for the latest upgrade in the same way people camp out for the new iPhone. So when Zubin Kanga sought radical technological change, he knew he’d need to look beyond the music world. 

“It’s not only about exploring extensions to the piano,” he explains, as we speak over Zoom. “It’s what I can change as the pianist.” Hence the MiMU gloves, which, in Laura Bowler’s SHOW(ti)ME, are used as a theatrical device as well as for sound control.

The effect is like something from 2002 film Minority Report – I half expect an iris scan halfway through listening. Composer Emily Howard who, as director and founder of PRiSM, RNCM’s cutting-edge research centre, is an expert in blending science and music, takes a more laboratory-style approach. Working with Dr Christiane Neuhaus at the University of Hamburg, Howard measured volunteers’ brainwaves as they listened to her orchestral work Torus (premiered at the Proms in 2016). Her piece for Kanga, DEVIANCE, is based on the structure of the responses, using live piano mixed with AI-generated audio based on the same recordings used in the experiment.

“In the future there will be huge banks of material that composers can draw on – that will open up new ways of thinking about how to use AI in music,” says Kanga. “Lots of these changes are difficult to predict – for example, in the Nineties most people didn’t think we’d be doing all our banking online.” 

Indeed. As something of a technophobe I have to admit to finding the pace of change a little unsettling. I’m not alone: discussing Kanga’s work with peers provoked some predictably conservative responses. But it’s impossible to ignore the benefits of these developments. Transcribing my 3,000-word conversation with Kanga, a task that previously might have taken a few hours, was completed in seconds – thanks to AI.

It’s not always about having the latest technology (is it, capitalism?); using older technology in new ways can be just as effective. Zubin Kanga is a keen advocate for synthesizers, instruments more commonly associated with prog rock than contemporary classical. A melody – stretched and contorted across a Korg Prologue and altered piano – in Kanga’s Hypnagogia is faintly recognisable. It’s Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as you’ve never heard it before. 

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor

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