April 14, 2014
These New Puritans’ Jack and George Barnett reveal the secrets of the motion sensor Magnetic Resonator Piano (MRP) that will take centre-stage at their forthcoming A/V installation Magnetic Field.
Among themselves, These New Puritans call the MRP an ‘un-organ’; an uncanny hybrid from a timeless present, equal parts pre-medieval and post-everything. Used on the band’s acclaimed 2013 album Field Of Reeds, it produces an acoustic sound with all the properties of electronic manipulation which even the band are hard pressed to describe. It is new sound extracted from an old machine, for at its core the MRP is still a piano.
Developed at Queen Mary University by composed and professor Andrew McPherson, the instrument, like the sound it creates is a product of competing ages; a piano whose strings are resonated by a series of suspended magnets and controlled by motion sensor technology. It was designed to push the piano’s strings to the absolute limit, capable for the first time of infinite sustain, pitch bends and unheard new timbres.
On show now at The Vinyl Factory’s 180 The Strand space the MRP’s motion-sensor technology is being expanded to allow visitors to ‘play’ the piano from anywhere in the room, where movements of arms, legs and heads will control the sound. It’s cutting age A/V stuff with the taste of Victorian curio about it (think: ‘the marvellous magnetic piano’) and the band’s most ambitious and extrovert statement to date. Speaking to Jack and George, there’s a sense that the experimental nature of the show has come to reflect the restless and committed creativity that has seen them push the boundaries of their music across three varied albums, to the joy (and sometimes befuddlement) of fans and critics alike.
A fundamental piece of an album they call their most personal, the MRP will remain in situ between the 15th and 19th April, with a special performance planned to launch the whole thing, as well as a day of collaborations on the 19th to coincide with Record Store Day. Those specially invited to experience the show and frolic within the These New Puritans sound include Gwilym Gold and Charles Hayward among many others.
With many questions still unanswered, we spoke to TNP brothers Jack and George Barnett to find out a little more about the Magnetic Resonator Piano, the Magnetic Field remix EP being released by The Vinyl Factory and what the installation means for a band destined to reinvent themselves.
Andrew McPherson, the man behind the MRP, contacted you during the recording of Field Of Reeds, in what was something of a serendipitous moment. How did you go about incorporating it into the album and what were your first impressions?
Jack Barnett: So, every sound on the album was accounted for, apart from one sound, which we didn’t know quite what it would be. I had an idea in mind of how it should sound. We called it an un-organ, an organ-ish sound but not really. We thought we’d have to get it through sound kind of sound design or something electronic. But then it sounded like this [the MRP] might be answer to our prayers and so we went to Queen Mary University and we met Andrew, he set it up for us, – it took about three or four hours to set up – and we tried it out and were just blown away by it.
George Barnett: It sounds somewhere between strings and brass. I think it’s a great sound.
And how does it actually work?
Jack: The strings of the piano are resonated by a series of magnets that are suspended upon the strings and it’s done by sensor-technology which tracks the movement of your hands over the keyboard. So all the sound is 100% acoustic, but it’s the kind of sound you might aspire to create using electronics. It’s also really fun to play.
Yeah, I bet. At times it feels like a medieval harpsichord and at others it could be something utterly futuristic…
Jack: I mean for me it kind of sometimes sounds like a church organ but somehow feeding back. There are so many things that it can do. You can pitch bend on it, which is amazing.
You say it was selected as the final sound of piece of the puzzle in creating the album, which itself at times seems very composed and meticulously constructed. However the installation, which relies on people creating sound through movement, seems not only very spontaneous but also improvisatory.
Jack: Yeah. So people will be able to manipulate it using their arms, legs and different parts of the body will affect different aspects of the sound.
George: Basically you walk in and the sound sort of follows you around. Your movements play the piano.
Did you play the piano like this on the album?
George: No No, we didn’t use the kinetic technology, that was a later thing when we were looking at how to present the piano. This is more about breaking the wall so that people are more directly involved in the music.
This album more than any we’ve ever made is more improvised, especially live. Visitors can take away whatever they want but it will be an experience, I’m sure.
What was the thinking behind doing the exhibition now and what can people expect when they visit?
George: Originally we wanted to do an exhibition to open up These New Puritans and allow people to see it for what it is. We’re seen as quite an insular band.
I’m really excited about the exhibition, I think it will be really great, really slick. We’ve also got other guys work in there. We’ve got Willy Vanderperre’s work – a video he did which is quite out there, we’ve got Daniel Askill’s video, two of his videos that we’ve worked on together, and Jack did an animated video that’s being shown as well.
Let’s talk about the remixes that are being released alongside the exhibition. Bark Psychosis has done one, and you’ve also contributed your own. Are these really just extensions of the album?
Jack: There are so many sounds on the album that you maybe wouldn’t notice. I think we’d even talked about doing something like this while we were recording. In any mix that you do of a song there are things that are going to be sacrificed, so we thought it would be interesting to take all the little sounds that you don’t necessarily notice and build some music around that.
And so I thought of this task of making remixes using only sounds of the album or sounds of the album sessions. We went on a trip to this mechanical music museum and we recorded our tour guide telling us about all these different mechanical instruments.
We did a lot of recording but actually used almost none, but in the remix I used this very funny wind powered instrument from the 18th century that makes this completely insane nonsensical music. I used a little segment of that and it always makes me laugh when I think of it.
George: It’s also Bark Psychosis’ first remix in about ten years. That’s quite interesting and to get him to do it was quite something. He had everything, he was just messing around with it. I find it quite interesting that people who produce records have whole other ways of listening to the album.
Starting with Field Of Reeds it seems like quite a journey with the live show at the Barbican this week and now the installation – almost as if the concept laid down in the album is still developing and growing into different directions..
Jack: I sort of like being the custodian of this music, I like it changing. I don’t get pre-occupied with the album itself, I quite like the little changes that it goes through and with the exhibition it will take on a different form from the show at the Barbican.
So, what can people expect from the live show?
George: The live show is like nothing we’ve ever done. It’s by far the biggest show we’ve ever done. There’s an MRP on stage there too. It’s the album completely live, followed by new music and one or two old classics. The amount of people involved is insane. There will be like 35 of us on stage, 15 crew…
And that’s a case of opening up to the world too, by putting on an ambitious live event.
George: Yeah, and making people re-think us. I think lots of people have an idea that they’re not willing to open up and listen. But with every new album we release we’re basically a new band anyway. It’s that whole thing of people getting stuck with what they think is a band, but it’s actually nothing like that. This is us almost as a new band. The re-imagining of us. That’s probably one of the most important points I suppose.
These New Puritans – Magnetic Field opens at 180 The Strand on Tuesday 15th April and will run until Saturday 19th April. Click here for more details. Opening hours: Tuesday 15th – Friday 18th April: 12pm – 7pm and Saturday 19th April: 11pm – 5pm. FREE ENTRY.