Playing the Breath Flute
Modern piano actions involve a huge number of moving parts for each key. To do what they do as well as they do it, pianos have evolved over a period of three centuries into amazingly complex wooden machines, yet they remain smooth, effortless and expressive in the playing. Thinking about this, a while back I gave myself the opposite assignment: what’s the simplest action I can come up with for a keyboard string instrument? My minimum requirements were that pressing the key should sound the string and releasing the key should stop the sound. I came up with the instrument shown here, called Minimal Clavier, actually more harpsichord than piano, in which the strings are sounded and then damped by the movement of the single lever which functions as the key. You can find a full description of the instrument here. The end result actually sounds better than I had expected, with a surprisingly loud and full tone for single-course zither of modest size. …But in terms of keyboard playability this instrument leaves quite a lot to be desired. It’s awkwardly stiff, inconsistent and glitch-prone. That’s not surprising: real keyboard making is high art, not well suited for a dilatant’s hand. Had I another lifetime available I might try another go at it.

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