Jay Needham and I sat together in a small coffee shop in Carbondale one chilly morning in February to discuss the Radio Piano performance and his origins in experimental radio art and as a musician.
AK: Radio Piano sounds like a very interesting and entertaining work of musical sound art. Tell me about your relationship with the piano.
JN: This piece is a return-to-roots journey for me. I find that I cycle back to the piano for new ideas, inspiration, and improvisation. Even though the piano is such a formal instrument, to me it seems rather open, full of moving parts and all of it under a great deal of tension. I view the piano as an instrument that has to do with change. I think that my feelings towards the piano have a lot to do with how I was introduced to the instrument. The piano’s basis as a percussion instrument, with its array of moving parts, its sensitivities and intricacies, gives me a sense of openness and possibility.
Modernism was a formative part of my upbringing, so I always saw the piano as a point of departure, a bit like a frame for a picture. I see the piano as an architectural instrument as well, something to wrap around an idea. It seems like an instrument that essentially wants to self-destruct. There’s so much tension inside a grand piano, there’s a lot of force at play, a quiet force that you don’t really understand but are only connected to by the tips of your fingers and toes. I’ve always been curious about not only its melodic capacity or its sense as an acoustic instrument, but also in its changeability and how I can heighten and/or change those aspects. As a younger musician I was always interested in that level of changeability or newness that could be brought into play.
AK: How will the radio be included in this piece?
JN: This piece will involve radio transmitter[s] and short-wave receivers. A lot of the technology that I work with is sometimes old and/or repurposed, and sometimes newer or purpose-built. I like that idea of assembling some of the old and some of the new, keeping things open, keeping circuits open, keeping the stage open, and keeping the piano open.
AK: In your composition, will the radio devices be playing along with the piano, or will the piano actually be playing or triggering the radio devices?
JN: A little bit of both, actually. I’ll be using some of the strings as the actual antennas for the radio devices used in the piece so that I can set up a space of radio around the piano, inside the piano, and on the stage.
AK: Does the space of the theater, the architecture of the building itself, play a role in this work?
JN: I’ve always had an interest in the space of theaters, the stage, the proscenium, the pit, the audience, and the grid. The theater is like a piano, it’s always full of potential, a framework for a composition. Traditionally designed theaters are meant to receive work in fairly straightforward ways, far from a performer. I’d like to invert or change some of those relationships with this piece. The audience for Radio Piano will be seated around me on the stage and certain sections will involve the audience hearing the piece from radio receivers in various positions in the concert hall and in the seats. Using the interior space in a slightly different way allows me to use the auditorium’s acoustics for the piece itself and not just as a location for the audience to sit. I also think that there is a sadness inside auditoriums and theaters and that is something I have always been attracted to. It seems like a mix of melancholy and amazement.
AK: having the audience with you on the stage, are you attempting to give the audience a different listening perspective than they are accustomed to in a traditionally arranged performance piece by allowing them to hear the space of the theater from the stage rather than from the seats?
JN: Yes, that’s the idea, to invert your perspective. I guess it’s always our hope as performers to be closer with an audience and to connect with a greater sense of resonance to those who are viewing or experiencing our works. So this is one component of that experience, to allow people onto a stage. As you know, sometimes it can be intimidating and unfamiliar. Most often, these environments are off-limits.
AK: Tell me about your origins in experimenting with radio in your work and what led you to create Radio Piano.
JN: I was a radio listener as a kid and I liked experimenting with electronics, and so my first experiences with radio-making were when I cracked open a few inexpensive transistor radios and connected them together into a pair of giant, metal all-weather public-address horns, I was around eight years old and I remember thinking that the bursts of low groaning feedback and radio sounded real good to me.
Media artists such as Tetsuo Kogowa, whose ideas of the small, hand-built radio circuit, and their capacity to interconnect and communicate in small networks, seemed quite alive and workable to me, a very public medium of radio. That open and simple circuit is a little bit more knowable for me than a lot of digital technologies, which tend to be, for the most part, fairly closed or owned or patented or licensed.
Some of the strongest influences for me in this piece would certainly be the prepared piano work of John Cage and the work of Alvin Lucier. Harry Parch, the American composer and instrument maker, has influenced me as well. I also think that the performance of this piece has to do with specific moments in time because I’ll be using parts of the radio spectrum, receiving various bits of short-wave information, processing it, and playing it through the piano live. That will probably only happen in that way just during that one performance.
AK: It could never happen the same way twice, could it?
JN: No, that’s correct, it could not happen the same way twice.
AK: You know, as a stringed-instrument player, I’ve never felt that I have been able to connect with the piano. I think it’s because it is so large that it cannot be held in my arms. I play stringed instruments that I can embrace, that I can run my fingers up and down the strings and pluck, bend, and slide my hands around on. The piano, for me, represents a mechanical interface between myself and the strings, and I haven’t been able to connect creatively with the strings of a piano through that interface. In that way, it makes the piano seem similar to an electronic instrument.
JN: That was what got me interested in playing the guitar, and I only play guitar a little bit, but that’s the only reason that I picked up a guitar, because I couldn’t pick up a piano. But that’s true, the mechanical parts of the piano, the density, the weight, acts as a huge interface, and it can be a funky dancing partner.
AK: It’s like dancing with a robot or something.
JN: Yes, it’s a beast. It’s also kind of a cultural beast. It has a legacy, it has its own western history that comes with it. I think that doing field modifications on stage is a playful way to open that system up a little bit. And you’re right, there is a different sense of touch, but now that we’re into more than a generation of knobs-on electronic-music playing, and I’m thinking from [composer] Milton Babbitt on here, there is a real difference, and some similarities between the interfacing of that electronic domain and the piano. It’s all about encountering or working with the interface anyway, as you sort of get to your art.
So that’s why I try to outfit or change the piano in this way, to change it out. I’ve been working on an old Hallicrafters short-wave receiver from the Second World War, and that piece will be featured in Radio Piano.
There’s also something of a recognition or an acknowledgement and a curiosity about that space of radio, using the spectrum of radio as a partner in the piece. Having that part of the spectrum as your instrument is just a different part of the tool set, and for me that’s very connected to the architecture. A lot of times I think about those radio waves and how they move about in those spaces, because they do move through those buildings and beyond.
AK: Sort of like ghosts or something?
JN: Yes, the architecture is sort of a trap or a filter for parts of the spectrum that are already flying around.