Author Archive | Leo

“Alter 3” Becomes the First Robot to Conduct an Orchestra

Alter 3 Conducts

Keiichiru Shibuya is a Japanese composer who recently finished his orchestral piece, “Scary Beauty,” which premiered in the United Arab Emirates last week. However, it wasn’t Mr. Shibuya who was the one to conduct the orchestra, it was Alter 3, a humanoid robot. It was created by roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University and Mixi Corporation and is embedded with an artificial neural network developed by artificial life researchers of the University of Tokyo.

Like other well-known examples of AI and robots developed in the last few years, such as Hanson Robotics’ Sophia the Robot, Alter 3 both looks and moves like a human being. Its face is the most delicately formed body part, resting on a metal, machine-like body where all the technology can be seen working away as it conducts on the podium.

When asked about the composers wishes to have Alter 3 conduct, he said, “This work is a metaphor of the relations between humans and technology. Sometimes the android will get crazy, human orchestras have to follow. But sometimes humans can cooperate very comfortably.”

While Shibuya wrote the music, the android robot was in charge of the tempo and dynamics of the live performance, even adding its own electro-vocals to the mix.

The overall reception to the performance was lukewarm. Many audience members said that although they appreciated the energy of the performance, the overall human touch of Alter 3’s movements were, “lacking.” However, the audience as a whole did applaud with great enthusiasm at the end of the performance.

Android Opera Scary Beauty is part of Sharjah Art Foundation’s Sharjapan exhibition which highlights performance art and sound-based installations from Japan. The aim is to examine the interactions between nature, technology and human life in tandem.

A Piano with No Black Keys

The other day, we reported on a piano with 102 keys, breaking the 88-key norm. Now, we have news that a company in Japan has developed a piano with no black keys whatsoever.

It’s called the “Sinhakken” model- With no black keys fitted, the 52 remaining white keys are all that’s left. With no tail to allow space for black keys over the top, the keys are ‘all head’, so to speak – full oblongs, the same width from top to bottom. At first glance, it looks quite strange and beautiful. But it’s also incredibly disorienting to play.

In the video above, uploaded to YouTube by Japanese software company Micronet Co., Ltd, a pianist plays an arrangement of ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from Children’s Corner Suite by Debussy, which develops everything in C major.

The pianist, who blogged about her find in 2014, says: “I can play almost all songs in C major without a black key.

“But I can’t help but feel that it’s quite different from the original song.”

According to her blog, the instrument has the same number of strings as a normal piano, but with the black key hammer action removed. So, you can literally only play in C major.

With no 24 major and minor keys – let alone so many rich colours – any change in tone can only be achieved by playing the white keys. And with no separation of black and white keys, you must have to relearn all your note references.

Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting and unique instrument.

The Ephrata Codex: A Record of the First Female Classical Composers in America

In the library of Congress, there is a document known as the, “Ephrata Codex”- an 18th century music manuscript created by a group of pioneers in Pennsylvania, at the dawn of colonial America’s birth. They called their commune, “Ephrata” and brought together about 80 individuals from various families to not only build a communal form of life based on the same morals and ideology, but also with a strong emphasis placed on musical composition. Perhaps the most notable fact about the Ephrata Codex is that it contains evidence of America’s first female composers. The contents of the Ephrata Codex appear to be a compendium of the community’s musical output up to 1746. The musical settings correspond to text-only hymnals entitled Zionitischer Weyrauchs Hügel (printed in 1739 by Christoph Sauer), and Das Gesäng der einsamen und verlassenen Turtel-Taube (printed in 1747 by the Ephrata Brotherhood – containing texts written exclusively by Beissel and his followers).


Thanks to the work of digital conservators, the entire Ephrata Codex is now viewable on the Library of Congress website in beautiful high-resolution images. The manuscript was acquired by the Library in Congress in 1927, and it appears that a mistake was made when cataloguing the title of the volume: the title is transcribed as “Die Bittre Gute,” which is translated as “The Bitter Good.” It is much more likely that the title reads “The Bittre Süse,” which translates as “The Bitter Sweet,” thus conforming more to Ephrata theology.

Dr. Christopher Dylan Herbert, an assistant professor of music at William Paterson University, wrote that when he reviewed the Codex in the Library of Congress, that he was the first to notice female names hidden in the corners of certain pieces. These names- Sister Föben, Sister Katura and Sister Hanna give evidence of them being the earliest female classical composers ever recorded. Delving into the music manuscripts even further, he developed the idea to reproduce and record these choral pieces- to be sung for the first time in 300 years in the same acoustic setting they were last performed- the Ephrata Cloister.

The Ephrata Cloister

Rules about worship changed frequently at Ephrata. At times devotees shaved their heads, at other times they slept only three hours a night. Treatises were written about what to eat in order to sing properly, and what to eat in general — no meat, no honey. Herbert speculates that these changes and the emphasis on creativity may have played a role in why those names were listed in the Codex.



“Because of the number of rules, and also this push to create, it created some conflict in the cloister about attribution of work and who gets credit for it,” he says.

With the recording of these early compositions on Voices in the Wilderness, Chris Herbert brings us a step closer toward recognizing the contributions of women in the history of American music.

If you’d like to see more of Chris Herbert’s, “Voices in the Wilnderness,” we encourage you to watch his interview here

Stuart & Sons Create First Ever Piano with 108 Keys

The world’s first 108-key piano has a range of nine full octaves

The first pianos ever made at the beginning of the 18th century were originally only four octaves. Over time, the design evolved into the standard 88 key system that we know today, and which hasn’t been changed since 1880- until now.

Stuart & Sons is the last remaining Australian piano manufacturer which has recently dived into the classical music history books by creating the first ever piano with 108 keys (nine total octaves). They’re a family business which has been making pianos in New South Wales for generations. When asked about the new design, Wayne Stuart, the company’s owner and lead designer said, “”It’s the 21st century, we need new things. We need new horizons… and this is certainly a new horizon.”

Mr. Stuart has been handcrafting pianos for 40 years but this is by far his most ambitious creation. Made with ancient Tasmanian Huon pine, the masterpiece measures 3 meters in length and took 18 painstaking months to build.

Edward Neeman, a concert pianist, said he can feel the difference, even if he is not utilizing the extra octaves the 108 keys offer.

“You don’t even need to play the extra keys to get the effect,” he said.

“You get a really warm and brilliant sound, and the whole bass becomes much richer [and] the resonance is more when there are more keys on the piano.

“This is as big as it gets, it’s pretty much the limits of human hearing, the limits of engineering.”

The 644-kilogram piano has been named The Beleura in honor of its new home — Beleura House and Garden on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.

Beleura House director Anthony Knight commissioned the piano, which had a $300,000 price tag, and said it would be used to nurture Australian musical talent.

To hear this piano in action, click below:

Steve Reich on Composing Music in Self-Isolation

Steve Reich in New York City

In the wake of COVID-19, many have found this period of self-isolation and social distancing to be particularly difficult to cope with. However, many musicians have taken this period of solitude to invest themselves heavily into recording new albums, learning new instruments, or expanding their repertoire. And in the classical music world, that same method thinking is being applied both by amateur musicians and noteworthy composers like Steve Reich.

Stephen Michael Reich is an American composer known for his contribution to the development of minimal music in the mid to late 1960s. Reich’s work is marked by its use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm, and canons. His compositions include groundbreaking experimental pieces like “4’33”, “The Cave” and, “Clapping Music.” Now, Reich is composing a new work titled, “Travel Prayer” from his home in Los Angeles.

When asked if the pandemic had dramatically affected his writing process, he says, “…This romantic idea that where you are affects what you write, I find that to be completely not the case. And so in this period of time I’ve been working on what I was working on before I got here: a piece called Traveler’s Prayer, which is a piece for four voices, two tenors and two sopranos; eight strings, two string quartets; and one piano and two vibes.

First off, I was having a discussion with someone in Sweden and he told me that he’d recently seen a cartoon, and the first panel drawing said, “Composer at work,” and the second panel said “Composer at work in quarantine.” And the two panels were identical. And I think that’s the truth. [Laughs.] It’s a solitary thing, right?”

Steve Reich’s Traveler’s Prayer will premiere in the fall of 2021. Lincoln Center recently included a video from Reich/Reverberations, its 2016 celebration of Steve Reich, in its Lincoln Center At Home series. You can stream the video on YouTube.

If you would like to learn more about Steve Reich’s oeuvre of music, we encourage you to watch the following interview with the composer:

Today in Classical Music: Anniversary of the First Recording of Classical Music

This Wednesday will mark a particularly unique anniversary for both Classical Music and audio engineering. On the 29th of June 1888 at the Ninth Triennial Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in London, the American colonel George Edward Gouraud wowed British spectators with a new, marvel invention: Thomas Edison’s new phonograph, updated from his original 1877 design. The civil war veteran descended from ambitious stock: his father, Francis Fauvel Gouraud, an engineer from France, had previously introduced into the US daguerreotypes for then primitive photography in 1839. Now, 49 years later, his son, acting as de-facto foreign agent to Edison would make his mark in the country by becoming a pioneer in the booming technology sector.

Edison’s new phonograph would exceed the limitations of his own original design, as Gouraud made evident by setting up the recording device some 100 yards distance from the stage which had been erected at the Crystal Palace to honor the works of the late German-turned-British composer George Friedrich Handel in both music and song.

The limitations of recording technology at that time, together with the number of voices, the distance of the recording device from the singers and the acoustics of the Crystal Palace, mean that the recorded sound was dim to begin with, and it has since then become badly degraded. What survives is barely audible but still identifiable by ear, and gives some insight into performance practices at the height of the Handel Festival phenomenon.

Israel in Egypt is a biblical oratorio by the composer George Frideric Handel. Most scholars believe the libretto was prepared by Charles Jennens, who also compiled the biblical texts for Handel’s Messiah. It is composed entirely of selected passages from the Old Testament, mainly from Exouds and the Psalms.

If you would like to listen to the original 1888 recording, you can do so here:

Edison with his phonograph



Lang Lang Announces New Recording of the Goldberg Variations

Lang Lang’s next album has been announced as Bach’s Goldberg Variations

The world-renowned pianist Lang Lang has announced that he will be releasing a recording of the Goldberg Variations on September 4th of this year. Lang Lang describes the opportunity to finally release his interpretation of this infamous collection of pieces by Bach as, “a lifelong dream.”

Set for release on the label, “Deutsche Grammophon,” the album will contain two performances: the first recorded in concert at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where Bach worked and where he is buried; the second a studio recording, made shortly following the concert.

‘I’m now 38 and, while that’s not old, I think the time was right for a new stage in my artistic development,’ says Lang Lang. ‘I’ve moved into new terrain with the Goldberg Variations and really immersed myself fully in this project. My goal as an artist is to keep becoming more self-aware and more knowledgeable, as well as to keep offering inspiration to others. It’s an ongoing process, but this project has taken me a little further along the path.’

Lang Lang is a Chinese concert pianist who has performed with leading orchestras in China, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Active since the 1990s, he was the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and some top American orchestras. When people think of solo pianists, many will invariably first think of Lng Lang or Glenn Gould, who famously did his own version of the Goldberg Variations (once in 1955 and again in 1981) which quickly became the most widely beloved renditions of Bach’s recorded arias and fugues. Lang Lang will undoubtedly seek to separate his style from Gould’s iconic recordings but in terms of how he does that, leaves many of us extremely curious as to how he’s accomplished the task of making the variations his own.

‘Playing in the Thomaskirche, where Bach is buried, was unbelievably emotional for me,’ the pianist added. ‘I’ve never felt as close to a composer as I did during that recital. The live version is very spontaneous, whereas in the studio version my playing is different – very considered and reflective. In a concert situation you experience the 100-minute work as a whole. In the studio you can focus on individual details and nuances, and of course that can affect the musical experience quite substantially.’