One Hundred Thousand Billion Pieces for Piano & Computer

Commissioned by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival for Conrad Tao

This is an ongoing collaborative project with the astounding pianist and composer Conrad Tao, commissioned for him by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.  Consisting of an autonomous, interactive software system and improvised live piano performance, OHTB was given its NYC premiere by Conrad in March 2021 as part of a series of pop-up storefront performances sponsored by the Kaufman Music Center. The recordings from that performance are shared here.

In a typical performance of OHTB, the software generates an initial musical environment out of sound files it chooses from a large, harmonically organized database. When Conrad plays the piano, the computer is able to listen and react to what he is playing. Conrad, in turn, can interrupt or affect what the computer is playing in a number of ways. In addition, at moments of its own choosing, the computer system will allow Conrad to change the harmonic structure of the music and, potentially, begin a new piece.

The title refers to Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), in which ten interchangeable versions of a fourteen-line sonnet result in a total of 1014 (100,000,000,000,000) possible poems. The large sound file database used by the computer in OHTB makes possible at least this number of unique pieces, and likely many billions more. In practical terms, each performance yields different and unpredictable musical experiences.

I designed the generative, interactive software system in Max with Conrad’s staggering improvisatory abilities vividly in mind. The goal of my design thinking is best described by the phrase “provocatively incomplete”, a state in which the computer’s musical behavior is compelling and unpredictable, but not entirely satisfying on its own. In other words, there are absences–of intention, of activity, of lyricism–that provoke completion by the live performance. The tricky part is callibrating these provocations:  consistently generating the right amount of harmonic, melodic, and/or rhythmic material to suggest a musical context that can be developed or upended by Conrad’s interventions.