Piano Vertical—a Performance Like No Other!

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It’s not often you see something that is “jaw-dropping”. But last month’s PIano Vertical concert in Munich most certainly deserves this description. Could the playing of a piano be any more dramatic?

Promotional image of a piano suspended from two cranes

PIano Vertical is the brainchild of Alain Roche. Back in 2013 this Swiss composer / designer / performer hatched the idea of playing a piano whilst suspended in the air. Not horizontally but vertically. This would add a unique new dimension to the performance and be visually overwhelming. Roche says he wants his audiences to look at life differently.

An acoustic grand piano is a big bulky item, and Roche’s concept wasn’t an easy one to realise. In the past performers have played pianos suspended in the air. Keith Emerson even played a “flying” piano which revolved in a “somersaulting” motion. But nothing matches the spectacle of Roche’s Piano Vertical.

The Piano Vertical

But how is it done? The first problem is the action. Roche contacted Fernand Kummer, a piano technician in Switzerland. Kummer developed a unique grand piano action that would operate with the same accuracy and expression when in a vertical position. Without this modification, the piano just wouldn’t play.

Alain Roche and the Yamaha C3 grand piano suspended above the audience
The modified Yamaha C3 grand piano suspended above the audience Sion, Switzerland (2019). Photo: Olivier Carrell

The piano itself is a production Yamaha C3 studio grand piano. It weighs 320kg, and that’s before adding a special chair, amplification, lighting and the pianist. The piano is suspended by two eyelets connected to a bar that runs through the tail of the instrument.

The audience for a Piano Vertical concert is seated, and it is the piano that moves. So the only way for those attending to fully appreciate the performance is via headphones. The piano is fitted with several microphones including four DPA 4009 mics for the low, mid-low, mid-hi, and hi regions.

Close-up image of Roche "on board" the piano
Alain Roche at Sion, Switzerland (2019). The microphones and PNO.1 sensors are clearly visible. Photo: Olivier Carrell

There is also a special sensor assembly, called PNO.1, for the bass strings. This was invented by Roche and two of his sound engineers, and inspired by the pick-ups used in a Fender Rhodes. There is a separate sensor for each of the 13 single bass strings, and one for each of the next 13 pairs. The mounting bar for these pickups is visible above the overstrung bass strings.

Every member of the audience receives an AKG K52 headset. These are wired headphones, which provide a higher fidelity sound than wireless ones.

Roche is strapped into a special chair that is clamped to the body of the instrument. An additional safety harness is also used.

The Event

Roche’s January 2020 show in Munich was a performance of his composition “Chantier”, which Roches describes as “Piano and construction sounds in the midst of a building site at dawn”.

the Munich concert with the Yamaha piano suspended in front of a nearby building
The Munich concert just before dawn (2020). Photo: Olivier Carrell

The building site is the perfect venue primarily because it has cranes, but also because “Chantier” is about construction and creation, and the performance incorporates industrial sounds from this environment.

Alain Roche performing high above the working construction site (2020). Photo: Olivier Carrell

Roche usually starts his concerts just before dawn, a time he considers both fascinating and magical. Known as “the blue hour”, this is a period just before sunrise when the sun lights up the sky but not the land. This generates a blue hue to the environs further adding to the mystique. It is also the time when the construction site is coming alive.

The audience, limited to 200 people, witness Roche and the piano rising to a considerable height illuminated by both spotlights and remote-controlled LEDs mounted within the piano. And the effect, coupled with Roche’s mesmeric playing, is spectacular. Do take a few minutes to watch Roche’s video (above).

More information about the piano and Alain Roche’s concerts can be found on the Piano Vertical website.


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