Multidimensional tactility

19 October 2020
19 Oct 2020
West Lafayette, IN
3 mins

This is an excerpt from today’s issue of my weekly newsletter.

I read a piece by Jasmine Wang earlier this week. I loved it for many reasons, but I liked this bit in particular:

I bought myself a grand piano recently and my piano teacher keeps telling me to stroke the keys the way an Impressionist painter would lay his brush on the canvas. I still don’t understand the magic of the keyboard; one would think that the range of motion is one-dimensional, just an up and down against the hammer. An engineer friend of mine asked me how it worked, in a sort of disbelief that multidimensional touch mattered on such a brute instrument (angle and sustain and distribution!), and I couldn’t explain the mechanics, but I’ve never been more sure of something.

As a pianist myself I was aware of this multidimensional tactility that I draw on when I play, but had never thought about it carefully.

When you record an electric piano and open up the dials in post-production, you can see the ways that a computer thinks about all the different levers of a particular hit of a key on the (metaphorical) string – gain, velocity, duration, sustain – but these are finite and discrete, in a way I think the actual touch of an acoustic piano key isn’t. No amount of tuning any set of numerical dials can capture the touch of a world-class pianist on real keys, ringing real, metal strings fastened to a real, acoustic, vibrating chamber of a piano.

Since the post, I’ve thought about how I’d try to capture the feeling of an acoustic piano in words. I think great instruments can thread a connection from your touch, through invisible space, to some metaphorical room that a performance fills with sound. When I play, and when I can get truly absorbed in the vibrations, I feel my fingers exhaling breaths of sound into that invisible, acoustic space, each hit of a string rippling over the echos of the previous and filling the room with ever-more-complex patterns of harmonies and reverberations.

In the specs and numbers about the pressure sensitivity of digital brushes and electric tactility of faux-wooden keys hitting digital strings, I think it’s easy to forget that these digital counterparts are flattened holograms of the real, like pixels of a photograph attempting to capture a reality with infinite resolution. There is multidimensional tactility in reality, in the scratches of a pen on paper, in the warmth of a voice, in the subtle glow of a color. When we bottle them up in bits, we wring out that tactility in the name of preservation – a tradeoff I think we can all be more attuned to as we drift in between worlds of atoms and bits.

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