Australian National University uses Disklavier Piano to create virtual music for our lockdown lives

A COVID-19 track that can be played virtually and which is inspired by lockdown as well as the Spanish flu has been recorded by musicians at The Australian National University (ANU).

The track, Riches to Rags in Covid Time, is composed by the head of the ANU School of Music, Associate Professor Kim Cunio. The music, inspired by rag music popular in the early 20th century, has been written for Yamaha Disklavier piano as well as human musicians.

Associate Professor Cunio said the track not only references the last global pandemic affecting the world, the Spanish flu, when rag music was popular, but also speaks to our “contemporary virtual world”.

“COVID-19 is affecting all of us so profoundly. Like many of us I had personal and professional worlds that collided,” he said.

“The ANU School of Music where I work had a significant transition to make very quickly, and it required a lot of creative thinking to find a way to deliver a musical education in an on line environment. That took so much out of me that it was only some time later that I had a chance to reflect on my own feelings, to start the process of coming to terms with this watershed in our history.

“I sat down on a recent Saturday and improvised some ideas on the piano. I wanted to find a sound that had all the intense energy that this pandemic comes with, that was still hopefully in a language that we all might be able to engage with."

“I started playing rag music and the idea came to write a piece that heads into and out of a rag, that also moves at a fast pace. I wanted to write music that alludes to the destructive flight of this pandemic, that had just a little of the musical language of the Spanish flu in it. It had to have some humour and hope, because that is what we must all find together.”

The music was created in two stages. In stage one, Associate Professor Cunio spent hours on a computer making score data sound ‘human’ on a virtual piano.

In the second stage he and sound technician Matthew Barnes used a USB to play a digital file of the music on a Yamaha C7 Disklavier piano.

“We plugged our USB into the piano and the keys suddenly came alive, playing this music that not only sounds lifelike but which we hope inspires and uplifts people as we all face the challenge of lockdown and this pandemic.
It’s really rare for virtual instruments to sound human, particularly detailed art music. But we think we’ve got there. It’s amazing what the Disklavier can do.”.

“But you don’t need a virtual piano to play the music. We’ve written it in such a way that any decent musician can play it.”

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