Hans Zimmer plays the piano of the future

Hans Zimmer plays the piano of the future
Photo provided by CNN

POSTED: Saturday, September 28, 2013 - 2:00pm

UPDATED: Saturday, September 28, 2013 - 2:04pm

Hans Zimmer, the creative force behind some of Hollywood's best loved film scores, adjusts his chair in front of a sleek black instrument that looks something like the control panel of a stealth bomber.

He raises his hands to the monochrome keyboard and presses gently. A familiar strain emerges from it: the opening lines of the Dark Knight theme, but today it sounds unlike it has ever sounded before.

The 'Seaboard keyboard' is a tech forward interpretation of the piano, that attempts to reimagine what a keyboard can do. To test the device, CNN invited Zimmer to cast an expert eye over the British invention, and give a frank assessment of how it works.

"The Seaboard is really interesting," Zimmer says, "because you're forever trying to figure out how to make music more expressive. I've always been involved in music and technology and this is quite a relationship we're developing here ... we're trying to figure out how to get beyond the boundaries of technology that was invented 600 years ago or so."

Developed in the UK, the Seaboard is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist inventor Roland Lamb. While studying at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, Lamb decided to create a new keyboard that he hoped would be more expressive than the piano.

"The piano was the first object I truly loved," Lamb says. "I played it all growing up ... but I became frustrated with its inability to modulate the timbre, and pitch and volume of each note. Essentially I was jealous of guitar players who could bend notes at will on a single note."

The Seaboard takes the basic layout of a piano but allows a player to 'bend' the sound of each note by using a range of different gestures that Lamb says are based very closely on the gestures people learn when they first pick up the piano. Moving a finger left on a key makes a note 'bend' downwards. Moving it right makes it go up a little.

Lamb believes that this opens up the expressive potential of the instrument, and serves to counter the "direct and unbending2 nature of notes played on a piano.

Zimmer says that in this respect, Lamb has been successful: "It behaves much more the way you imagine as a human being you would want to interact with your notes. It doesn't have that stiff 'plunky' thing that a piano has. It automatically has a sort of sensuality to it ... Look, if Debussy or Ravel had had one of these I think their music would have been X-rated."

The invention of an unusual instrument is nothing new of course. Earlier this year a device called the Artiphon came out, aiming to bridge the gap between guitar, keyboard and violin. Typically, new instruments have struggled to gain widespread traction, but some have been adopted by working musicians, such as the Swarmatron used by Trent Reznor on the Social Network soundtrack or the Reactable which, for a period, Bjork used in her live shows.

Lamb says he would love to see a Seaboard in the hands of Herbie Hancock or Vangelis, but that seeing it played by Zimmer was a particular thrill.

Lamb says that all of Zimmer's feedback was useful, but he was most surprised by the German composer's interest in the Seaboard's tactile qualities:

"One of the most surprising pieces of feedback that I got from Hans was his emphasis on the importance of the touch. I've always known that the touch is kind of the core part of the Seaboard ... but he wanted to just go back and focus on the simplicity and the beauty and the expression of the touch and that was a really nice reminder to me of what was of the greatest importance."

The Seaboard goes on sale this week.

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