The experimental pianist’s new programme includes Hitchcockian horrors, duplicitous dopplegangers and even B-movie acting.

With my new recital Cyborg Pianist, I am interested in how live musicians interact with technology. Cyborg Pianist builds on my Dark Twin tour, which was an entire programme featuring works for piano and multimedia. It also draws on some of the new approaches I’ve discovered in my time as a postdoc researcher, working with a project based at IRCAM in Paris, one of the world’s leading music technology research institutes.

Zubin Kanga performs Cyborg Pianist. Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia

A lot of the works in Cyborg Pianist find new ways of highlighting the pianist’s body. The piano requires a lot of agility and strength to play, and the pieces sonify these physical gestures using sensors. They also choreograph me to play the piano in unusual ways, with the electronics providing a theatrical context, or they project my body onscreen, creating a doppelganger that I can interact with in strange and surprising ways.

In choosing the composers for Cyborg Pianist, it was important to me that I admire their work, that we collaborate well, and that they were interested in exploring some combination of piano and technology. The three Australian composers I have commissioned are artists I’ve worked with previously. I worked closely with Damien Ricketson for over a decade from when he was co-Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring, and I’ve always enjoyed his work, whether playing it or listening to it. He’s always experimental in his attitude, and the resulting music is extremely varied and unexpected.

The second Australian composer is Marcus Whale, who I met when he was a teenage student at the Sydney Conservatorium. I have watched him develop into a serious artist with a career that spans popular and classical music. He wrote a brilliant little piece for me, Errata, in 2012, and I was very happy to follow up with Frontier, a really dark, brooding exploration of Australia’s early colonial history. The piece draws together some really rich sounds from doom metal with aerial drone footage he took in the Snowy Mountains.

The other Australian composer is Kate Moore, who I have collaborated with on many solo and chamber works over the years. I’ve always been a fan of her aesthetic, which draws on influences from the Dutch and New York minimalist scenes, yet remains a very distinctive voice. Her new work, Bestiary, features retro synth sounds, which felt very appropriate for the programme, given they remind me of 70s and 80s sci-fi soundtracks.

Zubin Kanga performs Cyborg Pianist. Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia

The British composers are all people I’ve been keen to work with for a long time. Patrick Nunn’s an expert in working with sensors, so he was one of the first composers in the project I commissioned. Adam de la Cour and Neil Luck both work together on many projects – they both create really crazy, theatrical music and so it’s been a lot of fun working with them on their two pieces. Johannes Kreidler is a composer I worked with for a portrait concert in Bergen, Norway a few years ago, so it’s been great to return to the warped sense of humour in his work. And Nicole  Lizée is a more recent discovery, but I loved her work immediately.

Patrick Nunn’s Morphosis, which I commissioned for Cyborg Pianist, uses 3D motion sensors attached to the pianist’s hands to shape electronic sound. The sensors are a type of motion capture, similar to the way actors’ movements are tracked to make CGI effects in films. These particular sensors track the movements of my hands in all dimensions. Pat spent many months exploring how to use this rich movement data, and he’s created an interactive system where every variation of movement has a different effect on the sound. This means that I’m triggering the electronics through my normal piano-playing movements, but can also stop and control these sounds through movements in the air, which look like something out of Minority Report or The Matrix!

Johannes Kreidler’s piece for the programme, Study for piano, video and electronics, features videos of the pianists, which are used to create an orchestra of doppelgangers. Kreidler was kind enough to offer to create a new version of this work using videos of me, rather than the original performer. I performed hundreds of pianistic gestures – often single notes being played or plucked, but also hitting the piano with a hammer or stomping on the pedals. He then lays these out in mosaics across the video screen to make an accompanying ensemble of multiplied versions of me. The interaction has to be timed very precisely, with a lot of the humour and gestural interest depending on a careful dance between this digital partner and myself. 

Nicole Lizée, whose Hitchock Etudes I am also performing, takes tiny loops of classic films, highlighting not just the film score, but dialogue, foley sounds and sonic artefacts, from which she builds her pieces. In this work, she focuses on the great films of Hitchcock’s middle period, with Norman Bates’ stuttering introduction, the shower scene and the opening credits from Psycho forming the centrepieces, alongside a few moments of Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera in The Man Who Knew Too Much and the school choir rehearsing in The Birds (shortly before the birds attack the schoolhouse). The result is incredibly virtuosic, disturbing and beautiful.

Damien Ricketson’s piece for the programme ‘submerges’ a work by Erik Satie in his The Day after Drowning. It takes the first of Satie’s Gnossiennes and gradually warps it, stretching it out and creating ripples of harmony around it. The electronics gradually seep in and submerge my playing in a sea of sound. The effect is uncanny, making it sound like the pitches I’m playing are bending and stretching as though underwater.

The programme is clearly very challenging. A number of the works require extremely precise synchronisation with the featured multimedia, and most of them require considerable virtuosity, covering the full range of the piano and playing at extreme speeds. I think Adam de la Cour’s Transplant the Movie! provides the most unusual challenge – I begin as a silent movie pianist accompanying a horror film, but I soon discover that I’m trapped inside the film, requiring some B-movie acting from me that’s been an enjoyable challenge. 

The horror and sci-fi genre are obviously overarching themes of this programme, but there’s also a deeper theme of drawing on ‘found objects’ and creating something new. Classic movies, canonical music, and retro synthesiser sounds are transformed, re-examined and re-appropriated in surprising and innovative ways in Cyborg Pianist.

In the last decade that I’ve been working in London, the biggest change I have seen in the contemporary music scene is the emergence of a new approach among younger composers. Works are now commenting on pop culture, and draw together influences as diverse as Mauricio Kagel, stand-up comedy, MTV and YouTube videos, absurdist theatre, video art, and conceptual visual art. A lot of Cyborg Pianist explores this sense of playfulness and theatricality. The works are great fun, both for the audience and me.


Zubin Kanga performs Cyborg Pianist at Melbourne Recital Centre on October 11 and Sydney Conservatorium of Music on October 22.