“Surface Tension” is a collaborative interdisciplinary work for disklavier piano and interactive video created by pianist Eve Egoyan and artist David Rokeby. It was commissioned by the Open Ears Festival with a grant from the Canada Council. It was premiered at Open Ears in Kitchener in May of 2009.
In “Surface Tension”, Eve’s performance at the keyboard of a disklavier (an acoustic piano with a computer interface) is transformed and interpreted by a computer into live visual images projected onto a screen rising from the body of the piano. The visuals respond to a variety of performance parameters including dynamics, pitch, the harmonic relation between pitches, the use of the sustain pedal, and the duration of individual notes. This extends the piano into a visual instrument as well as a musical one.
Much of the visual material is based on simulations of natural processes such as the swarming behaviours of insects, the trajectories of planets or the rippling of water when a pebble hits the surface. Eve's performance triggers and modulates aspects of these simulations; the visual representations respond to Eve, but also have a sort of life of their own, becoming in a sense a partner in the performance. In one movement, each note played on the piano contributes to the construction of a three-dimensional tower. In another, Eve draws out the trajectories of falling snowflakes, manipulating the live processing of a pre-recorded video. Yet another charts the harmonic relationships between the notes that Eve is playing.
The performance itself is a loosely structured audio-visual improvisation in 5 movements. The improvisation is shaped partly by Eve's response to the system's visual response to her playing. Except for the change of software programs between movements, all visual activity on the screen is directly responsive to Eve. The result is an extraordinary integration of sound and image in which neither of these elements dominate the other.