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Tonight, the renowned avant-garde cellist Maya Beiser will perform at the Dillon Art gallery in New York City. Though Beiser is known for her passionate interpretations of modern music, at this show she’ll be playing an instrument that’s nearly as intense as she is: an electric cello enhanced with LED lights. Jean Kumagai, from Here & Now's tech partner IEEE Spectrum, has this report.
The cello, played well, is a soulful instrument. So human, so organic. The last thing you’d think a cello needs is high-tech enhancement. And yet, several years ago the visual artist Erika Harrsch began collaborating with cellist Maya Beiser and composer Paola Prestini on a new work.
Harrsch had an idea: What about an LED cello? An instrument covered with panels of light-emitting diodes. Harrsch says at first, it was a tough sell.
"I remember when I came to Paola and Maya, like, 'I want to make an LED Cello,' they’re like, 'what?!'"
Beiser was skeptical, saying she was worried about "the warmth of it." Harrsch also got some pushback from Yamaha, the company that makes the electric cello on which she wanted to mount the LEDs.
"We contacted the people from Yamaha and they told us it was impossible."Erika Harrsch
"We contacted the people from Yamaha and they told us it was impossible, that what we were wanting to do would destroy the sound," Harrsch said.
But she persisted, and eventually convinced Beiser and Prestini. The actual engineering of the instrument took nearly a year. On the front of the cello, Harrsch mounted eight small panels of light-emitting diodes, engineered by the company D3 LED, which builds the flashy animated outdoor displays you see in Times Square. Where a cello is normally curvy, the panels make the LED cello a bit boxy.
"Here in the center, this is the brain of the cello that connects to the computer, and everything is communicated by Ethernet wire," Harrsch explained. "This same software is the same kind of software that runs Times Square - exactly the same."
The software allows Harrsch to play any kind of video right on the cello’s face. If she wanted, she could play YouTube cat videos. The LEDs can also be programmed to respond to the musician’s movements and to interact with the surroundings. Lines emerge from the LED cello and expand to a screen behind the cellist.
The LED cello (officially named the ©Erika Harrsch LEDCello) debuted last year at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, Illinois, in a concerto called "Room 35." It’s based on a novella by Anaïs Nin, which traces a woman’s path of self-discovery.
"The piece indeed begins underwater and it ends with an ecstatic view of communication, which unveils in the last 10 minutes of the piece - the LED cello," said composer Paola Prestini.
Seated center stage, Beiser starts off playing an acoustic cello. But somewhere around minute 22, the musician sets aside her instrument, slowly climbs a set of stairs to an elevated platform, and takes up the LED cello.
"At the beginning I’m just playing, I’m just kind of improvising different sounds, and you start seeing all these images," Beiser said. "Then it kind of takes, you know, full stage. And it’s very rock and roll actually."
Beiser's performance tonight at the Dillon Gallery will offer just a slice of last year’s world premiere. But on April 14, Prestini’s company, VIA Records, will release a DVD and CD, so you too can enjoy the concerto in its entirety, and watch and listen as Beiser performs with the LED cello.
This story aired on April 2, 2015.
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