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Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Tue Jan 01, 2013 9:45 pm
by JohnGouwens
In the Fall 2012 issue of Carillon News, Carlo van Ulft contributed an interesting column, in large part sounding a note of caution, about the recent portable carillons with electric actions that (purportedly) offer dynamic sensitivity. I wrote a big "Letter to the Editor" in response, but honestly, this is best as a discussion topic. I won't reproduce Carlo's column here. You can look it up online easily enough. I also reacted to Margo Halsted's column about calling ourselves "Carillon Musicians of North America," and calling ourselves "carillonists." I put both of these in the same letter to the editor, but here I'll put the electric keyboards, and you can find my reaction to Margo's column under "Guild Business."

Electric Keyboards?

In smaller circles of colleagues, I've commented on this before, but the time has probably come to air this more broadly. I certainly can appreciate the advantages Carlo cites about flexibility of bell placement, and also of placement of the console or keyboard, that an electrical connection between key and clapper offers. He rightly points out the direction such development might ultimately go, though I honestly don't see how we carillonneurs can prevent the bellfounders (and the bongatron manufacturers) from pursuing further development.

There is a very important point that he didn't touch on, and that's where I center my attention. The manner in which one depresses the key makes a dramatic difference in the sonority one gets from the carillon. Many who play, and teach, the carillon are sadly oblivious to this, though the indications you see for "staccato" at times in the music of, for example, Ronald Barnes, indicates that some are aware that one can make a difference.

For me, the real epiphany came in my college years, at the University of Michigan. On two Mondays (may even have been consecutive Mondays), I heard Jacques Lannoy (Douai, France) play a recital, and subsequently heard a recital by one of the most famous Dutch carillonneurs (who I will refrain from mentioning here for reasons that will be obvious). Particularly in the condition it was in at that time, the Baird Memorial Carillon had major problems with treble bells that didn't ring out well - just clunking. Jacques Lannoy managed to draw a remarkably singing, lyric sound out of the instrument - not eliminating its problems, admittedly, but making it sound astonishingly good. He used a technique that involved considerable forward movement at the beginning of a stroke, "Like a boxer," as he himself said. Then came the Dutch recital. Unbelievable! It sounded as if somebody had wrapped tape around all the bells! The clunkiness was terrible. (It wasn't worse than I had heard a few others do there, but it was pretty much equal with the worst of them.) Ever since that formative moment, I have worked to develop and improve my own control over the sonority I draw from any carillon I encounter. Anybody who has ever taken a carillon lesson with me will vouch for the priority I give to this matter. It is described in detail in "Playing the Carillon: An Introductory Method," with the early chapter: III. Very Basic Playing – Striving for a Beautiful Tone. Video demonstrations of technique that several of us did at Culver congresses in 1985 and in 2004 demonstrated this difference as well. Soon, I will have an online video, with the best audio quality I could arrange to show the difference, in which I cover that point, demonstrating it in several contexts. See for yourself! There are times when it is genuinely useful to use a more "martellato" or "staccato" touch on the carillon, but the most dramatic examples tend to involve passages that use both. In the Etude by Gary White, for example, the accented notes constitute a melody of sorts. By intentionally using a more "legato" touch on those accented notes, the listener can perceive the resulting melodic phrase quite clearly, "connecting the dots," as it were. (Since the Etude is the second piece in the method book, even a beginning carillon student is introduced to all that.)

None of this is particularly different from what a good piano teacher imparts to a student, though as you might guess, I emphasize it more with my piano students than many teachers would. Accomplished pianists often speak of these differences as "tone color," and there's a whole lot more to it than dynamic level. (In the piano, there is also the often-subtle use of the sustaining pedal, but that is beside the point for us.) MIDI keyboards, even the finest among them, are measuring only one thing: the time interval between two contact points. If the time interval is faster, the note is sounded more loudly; if slower, it is sounded more softly. There is nothing in the MIDI keyboard that measures or senses whether you began a note suddenly or jarringly, or whether you had a smooth acceleration up to speed; it measures only that time interval between the two points.

Will somebody, some day, create an electronic means to recreate subtler details of touch? It seems probable, as it would be related to the servo-pneumatic actions fitted to some larger tracker organs. Those rely on more of an "analog" than a "digital" control, in the case of Fisk organs actually a mechanical connection acting on the admission of wind into the pneumatics. Could it be done today for the carillon? Maybe it could, but not with a MIDI interface as we know it. Have any of you who are accomplished pianists ever been able to coax all the same nuances out of the finest digital "piano" you ever encountered that you could out of a fine Steinway? I know I've played on some fine digital pianos, but never found one that came close to offering that.

As you might guess, I am no advocate of digital (bongatron) practice consoles either, as they similarly make no differentiation for your touch, nor do they properly address problems many players have with not properly finishing a keystroke. The touch difference you make with tone bars isn't the same as with the bells, but it is closer, and you find out in a hurry if you didn't finish the stroke properly.

Any of us who has dealt with electric strikers on a carillon is aware that even when no attempt is made to incorporate a dynamic difference, simple wear and tear throws an instrument out of regulation, so that some notes are very loud and harsh, and others barely sound. (The latter, by the way, is often because the clapper contact point has worn down, making it necessary to adjust the stop point on the striker action.) The challenges of keeping an electric action regulated enough for a dynamically-flat performances are significant enough; think how much more complex the upkeep would be to regulate electric strikers that are supposed to convey dynamics, let alone other nuances of touch! That might not be a major hardship on a small, portable instrument (such as the Russian instrument, or the one Frank Steijns owns), but imagine having to fuss with all this on a frame up in a tower! (I should quickly point out that Boudewijn Zwart's "Bell Moods" portable carillon and the "Bronzen Piano" now being made for Koen van Assche and Anna-Maria Reverte both have mechanical connections, so though the touch will undoubtedly be different from a tower carillon, both offer all the sensitivity and range of nuance one might want.) I suspect that the technology it would take to build and maintain an electric action for bells that offers that level of control would be complicated and expensive enough to keep it from ever offering a cheaper alternative to a good mechanical action.

My friend Carlo is certainly right that in the existing carillons with "baton keyboards" fitted to electric actions, the only contribution those keyboards make is the "circus act" element - though honestly, it's not a bad thing to have an accessible way for people to see how somebody plays that carillon up in the tower. (Incidentally, as I discovered playing there last August, Frank's carillon in Weert is fitted with video cameras and several monitors on the ground near the church, so that people can see what the player is doing. That serves a similarly worthy purpose.) I note that some visible carillonneurs indeed turn what they do into more of an "act" than a musical performance, and some of them freely say so.

As I read Carlo's column, I was thinking, "What's next? Is he going to promote bongatrons?" He pointed out, rightly in my opinion, that such developments inevitably lead to bongatrons. I don't think the typewriter analogy quite works, since typists were never expecting to convey nuances of expression by the manner in which they pressed the keys, but if such bongatrons took hold, it could indeed doom the bellfounders! Personally, I believe this won't ultimately happen. Even with all the improvements that have been made to loudspeakers over the years, the physical presence of bells (as with organ pipes) still makes an important difference. That, and the life expectancy of bongatrons, still makes the case strong for the traditional carillon.

Carlo's reference to organists auditioning sounds is interesting. Remember that for those tests, people are hearing both the pipes and the imitation by way of a loudspeaker. That said, I have yet to hear a recording of even the fanciest electronic "organ" (and believe me, I'm on their mailing lists) that can approach the beauty and effectiveness of a recording of a fine pipe organ. Also, when one hears the whole instrument together, the difference is more pronounced, just as when one is in a large room where all the windows are of a very faint green tint - in one window, you wouldn't notice it, but when all the light in the room is influenced by it, the difference is dramatic. I think I can safely say that nearly all of us who are carillonneurs passionately believe in the traditional instrument, and would do anything to help protect it!

- John Gouwens

OK, you all! Comments?

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2013 2:26 am
by FrancesNewell
John, I've been bugging you to hurry up and give us your video demonstration! I really look forward to it
For me, carillon playing is very organic.
In other words, the less there is between me and my bells, the better.
I'm partial to the old-fashioned mechanical action that goes straight from my touch to the wire, then the clapper!
We can get the best sound by maintaining our carillons well.
I also know that electrical parts break down, have power fluctuations, and if they are invalid with computers, then there is more that can get between you and your bells!
I just like the natural touch!
Call me a curmudgeon!

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2013 2:50 am
by JohnGouwens
Good points, Frances! More than once, I've played despite a power failure, too!

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2013 6:15 am
by CarlSZimmerman
This reminds me of an incident at a Congress a few years ago. One of our young players asserted that from the perspective of physics, there are only two variables that a carillon player can control - when the clapper strikes, and how fast it is moving when it does so. One of our senior masters of the art was quite shocked at this assertion, and began to assert very different things, all of which were from the perspective of the player. Fortunately, the situation didn't degenerate into a pointless argument. Unfortunately, no one (including myself!) was quick-witted enough to clarify the apparent disagreement at the time, and to show how both perspectives are actually correct.

In retrospect, though, the distinction is obvious. As musicians, we don't think in terms of the moving parts at the distant end of the musical machinery. Instead, we think about how we interact with the nearer end of the machinery. Even then, we don't usually think directly about the details of how the various parts of our bodies move, but in more abstract terms of how we can make the instrument convey the musical concepts which a piece of music (or an improvisation) puts into our minds. If we do think explicitly about how to move our hands or feet, that's only a short-term process while we train those hands and feet to do the "right things" automatically, and ultimately to make the clappers strike at the right time with the right velocity.

The electric-keyboard carillon, like the electric-keyboard piano, deprives the player of half the physical control that's available in the traditional instrument. The player has no individual control over how fast the carillon clapper moves, nor the loudness of the individual piano note - only the timing of when a note starts and perhaps also the uniform loudness of all notes (assuming some sort of swell pedal). Throw in the significant difference between the baton keyboard and the ivory keyboard and it becomes evident that the electric-keyboard carillon is literally a different instrument from the traditional-keyboard carillon.

There have been hybridization attempts - baton keyboards fronting electric actions, in an attempt to make the playing techniques developed by traditional carillonists relevant to electric actions. These have been unsatisfactory for multiple reasons, not least of which is that it seems to be impossible to imitate the effects of clapper inertia with any non-inertial mechanism.

So while it is theoretically possible to make an electric striker action in which both velocity and timing can be controlled, there appears to be no practical way to deliver full control of such an action into the hands of a musician. While such actions can be controlled by computer (with a non-MIDI interface, to be sure), and can produce a charming sound on small bells, they are unlikely to attract audiences in the same way that live performances do. (In last year's highly successful publicity efforts, the St.Louis Symphony [] proclaimed "You have to hear it live!") Video relays from the tower to the ground have proven quite powerful in educating audiences, and I suggest that we need to do more of this.

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2013 1:39 pm
by FrancesNewell
Absolutely, Carl, The human element is essential. Regardless of HOW MUCH OR LITTLE people may know about the carillon, listeners can tell the difference!

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Fri Jan 04, 2013 5:17 am
by JohnGouwens
If I hadn't had to leave before that presentation happened in 2008, I would have pounced on that. As it was he and I had some correspondence about it. I even recorded demonstrations of the difference - blind test, good recording quality - but never heard more from him after I sent them. (I suspect he lost interest in being proven wrong.) As I understand it, there was a prominent Belgian as well as a prominent American who challenged him. As Milford said in the interview (that Bulletin article I did with him), way too many people don't listen to what they produce when they play. Again, soon I will have a video up about it.

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Fri Jan 04, 2013 2:28 pm
by Gideon Bodden
Looking forward to the video!

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Fri Jan 11, 2013 2:17 am
by JohnGouwens
OK, here's the link!

This will take you to a screen where you can choose between "Composing for the Carillon" and "First Lesson at the Carillon." I'm finding that Firefox isn't letting me open the file. Google Chrome is a little better. It's best to download it, but it is a big file. The video takes about 25 minutes. Enjoy!

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Sat Jan 12, 2013 12:01 pm
by FrancesNewell
[b]John, I saw both of your videos. They are wonderfully enlightening!
Thank-you for such a special contribution to our art form!

Re: Electric Keyboards

PostPosted: Sun Jan 13, 2013 6:01 am
by JohnGouwens
Many thanks, Frances! You can hopefully see the point I'm making very clearly about the touch differentiation.