Music for 16 pianos premieres tonight at Drake

Why play just one piano when you could play 16? (Photo: Nathan Felix)

By Michael Morain

Pop quiz, math nerds! When 16 pianists perform on 16 pianos in a brand-new piece at Drake University, how many keys will they be able to play?

OK, we’ll save you the trouble: That’s 1,408 keys.

The world premiere of “16 Pianos in Surround Sound” is set for 7:30 tonight and Thursday in and around the Anderson Gallery in the Harmon Fine Arts Center. The pianos will be upstairs, downstairs — and in the elevator.

“I’ve never written for this many pianos,” said the New York-based composer, Nathan Felix. “It’s been a journey, definitely.”

When he premiered an immersive opera in the gallery last fall, he wondered how many pianos were scattered across campus. Someone came up with a list — close to 100 — which inspired him to write the new project. He pared down his original score to “just” 16, which will be played by Drake music professors Nicholas Roth, Susan Ihnen, Ling-Yu Hsiao, Rika Uchida and a dozen of Roth’s students.
“The whole project is something that’s new and maybe even scary for some of the students,” Felix said. “But it’s great experience for them if they pursue careers in music.” (Besides, “played elevator piano” looks good on a resume.)

The hourlong performance comprises four parts and includes some of Felix’s water-themed videos that will play, on mute, in the gallery. Guests will be encouraged to wander the building and to listen how the music overlaps from one corner to another.

Oh – and this is important: The second movement calls for audience participation. It’s called “Music for Newspaper, Voice, Pens, Dog Toys, Foil and Pop Rocks.”

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