Orchestration

for two prepared pianos

Duration

9 and a half minutes

Commissioned by/Premiere

Commissioned by The Gilmore International Piano Festival sponsored by Friends of the van der Westhuizen Family in memory of Pieter and Madelyn van der Westhuizen 

May 1, 2024
Kasey Shao and Harmony Zhu, pianos
Stetson Chapel, Kalamazoo College, Gilmore Piano Festival 

Score

uncanny-valleys-031224

This piece is in exclusivity until May 1, 2025.

Note

The uncanny valley is a concept developed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Forty years ago, he imagined the discomfort that one might feel encountering a robot who looks almost human. In the nascent age of AI, where we see computer-generated images and text daily, the uncanny valley is very much in the air, so much so that when I showed my wife my ideas for a new composition for two prepared pianos, she described the sounds as an uncanny valley—not quite piano because of the timbral transformation, but also not not a piano. I took her notion and ran with it, imagining a piece that thinks of the uncanny valley in three ways.

The first movement, Birch Copse, takes its title from a drawing of Leonardo Da Vinci’s in red chalk. This drawing gives the impression of a hyperrealistic copse, or small group, of trees. But a single stroke is hard to detect in the dense web of crosshatching. Similarly, the two pianos in this movement play quick, gestural chords on strings muted with poster board putty; sounds that are almost together, though no single note can be traced from the other instrument. Against these gestural chords are a series of bell-like harmonics elicited from the low strings, sounds that are almost in tune, in the uncanny valley of intonation.

The second movement, Void Pattern, is a concept from forensics, wherein a physical object like a hand or shoe blocks a blood stain from forming properly. The scientists have to use everything else to figure out what’s missing. Similarly, in my piece, the two pianos play overlapping riffs of harmonics, muted notes, plucked notes, and traditionally struck ones where the perceived “pattern” is never played, but only emerges by implication between the two instruments.

The last movement, Silicon Estuary, draws its title from the ubiquitous AI chatbot known as ChatGPT. When I asked the bot to tell me about some works of art that make use of the uncanny valley, it suggested a piece called Silicon Estuary, by the artist-provocateur Jordan Wolfson. This was useful to me, as Wolfson is an artist I’m interested in, and whose work often has uncanny aspects. That is, until I realized the piece doesn’t exist—it is a phantom invention of the program. I decided to keep the title as I loved how it described the flowing, 8th-note rhythms that move the music in the movement, like a river opening to a wide, weird sea.