Sitting at a grand piano, hands poised above the keys, Doug Blackley is ready to shatter all your expectations about the instrument.
Blackley, an award-winning composer and sound engineer who moved to Ladysmith in September, has found a way to make an acoustic piano sound electric. Driving the piano strings with electromagnets, Blackley calls the instrument the spectral piano.
Blackley has custom-built software that he can link to a grand piano to make the piano sound like it never has before — holding notes continuously, pitch-bending, creating plucked sounds and emitting ethereal shimmers.
At its most basic, Blackley’s spectral piano is an extension of the concept of playing a piano with techniques that allow the creation of sustained tones, he explains on his blog. The basic idea behind this new instrument is the creation of a system that facilitates independently-controllable agitation of 48 piano strings. External control is possible from musical keyboards, alternate controllers, the computer, or the regular piano keys if suitable hardware is retrofitted to the instrument.
The result is very unique.
“As far as I know, someone in 1866 did it once but couldn’t do the sounds I did,” Blackley says, sitting at the piano. “One of the things about an acoustic piano is the sounds die away, but with this one, they won’t.”
Blackley knows of Andrew McPherson (creator of the Magnetic Resonance Piano) and Pers Bloland doing something similar, but all these instruments sound different.
“This alters the behaviors of the acoustic piano,” explained Blackley. “This is an acoustic instrument, not electric. It’s an acoustic instrument that has the abilities of an electric instrument. It’s pretty unique. Now, I have to figure out what to do with it.”
Blackley first thought of the spectral piano 20 years ago. He was doing sound design and music for a play by Frank Moore and using a grand piano that had all the keys taken off, called a prepared piano.
“That’s cool but it’s been done for 50 years,” said Blackley. “I wanted something continuous. I never dreamed I’d be able to get so many sounds out of it until I did my Masters in Fine Art at Simon Fraser University.”
Blackley has worked on major live theatre and television productions for many years. After working in music and sound design in Edmonton, he moved to Vancouver to focus on composing for other media, including television and film. He won a Leo Award in 2001 and was nominated for a 2001 West Coast Music Award for best overall film score.
Blackley teaches music theory, composition and electronic synthesis at the Art Institute of Vancouver, and he owns his own recording studio, Soundscore.
Blackley has been interested in sound since he was a child.
“When I was a kid, I got my parents to buy me a stereo tape recorder so I could make sounds and make them zing between the speakers,” he said.
Blackley’s experiences as a musician also kept him wanting to learn more about sound.
“I play drums, and drumming is about manipulating rhythm and sound,” he said. “But it’s not pitched like a piano. When I was in jazz college, I learned about modular synthesizers … I wound up using synthesizers to create sounds for theatre and TV.”
Blackley says one thing that keeps him interested in sound design and composing is the fact you are always learning and re-inventing yourself.
“It’s as deep as you want to make it,” he said. “I’ve been doing it my whole life, and in a lot of ways, I regard myself as a beginner because the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”
“And then there’s this wonderful, luscious sound when things are sounding amazing,” he added. “It’s a real organic rush. You don’t get that necessarily in every job.”