Artist Xiao Xiao knows how to make an entrance without ever entering the room. Of the many installations scattered across the Goldsmiths campus for NIME week, I chose to stop by one Xiao Xiao’s MirrorFugue, which, to say the least, certainly did not disappoint. As I entered a large, dark room illuminated only by a few overhead lights and a bright screen up ahead, I felt I was walking into some undiscovered performance hall. A few attendees lingered off to the side, but were mostly quiet, as I soon was.
In front of me stood a beautiful black grand piano, in its own sort of spotlight, with a beautiful, elegant piece emanating from the strings of the open body. But the pianist was nowhere to be found – at least, not in physical form. A sea of white and black pulsed on the keyboard of a piano controlled by a computer keyboard. On the moving keys were projections of a pianist’s fingers, which pressed and lifted and darted from key to key as if a real person were actually there. And in front of me, where the sheet music should have been, was a screen, projecting the image of the pianist (Xiao Xiao, at first). As the music changed to a different piece, and thus a different style and flavor of energy, so did the images of the pianist and the fingers. The best part? I was invited to follow along with the moving keys.
If all of this sounds surreal, it was! It made me think, really think, about how we define performance by physical presence, emotional investment (every image of every pianist showed the same amount of expression one would expect from a live performer – no passion for the playing was ever lacking)…and how that definition changes when we introduce technology.
The original player piano must have certainly made people uncomfortable at first, but look at where it led to – making music more fun and more available. MirrorFugue is the natural extension of the player piano in a modern sense – and in my opinion, much more beautiful and people-centric.
Read more about Xiao Xiao’s work at the MIT Media Lab here.
Also, be sure to check out her paper Andante: Walking Figures on the Piano Keyboard to Visualize Musical Motion.