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Geoff Smith - The Fluid Piano

  • Date: 31 March 2010
  • Artform: Music
  • Area: South East
Matthew Bourne on Fluid Piano™ and Geoff Smith on Fluid Dulcimer, 2009 Matthew Bourne on Fluid Piano™ and Geoff Smith on Fluid Dulcimer, 2009, Photo courtesy of Geoff Smith

Composer and pianist Geoff Smith made world history by inventing the first acoustic piano that can be re-tuned as it's played.

In November 2009, the Brighton-based musician unveiled his creation, dubbed the fluid piano, at a preview at the University of Surrey, with performances from leading pianists. The media reaction to the invention has been phenomenal, with a flurry of performance and media requests - just Google fluid piano and you'll see what we mean.

The piano utilises a fluid tuning mechanism that Smith first developed with the hammered dulcimer, in which each note can be manually tuned using a slider, moving in micro-tone intervals in either direction before or while playing. The microtonal piano revolutionises music capabilities by giving composers and musicians access to non-Western scales, found in Persian, Chinese and Indian music, for instance, as well as bespoke tuning layouts.

'The fluid piano is a Western piano as we know it,' Smith explained in an interview with The Guardian, 'similar to an early fortepiano, but because of the tuning mechanisms, suddenly, musicians can explore scales from the Middle East, from Iran.'

In an earlier Guardian interview, he spoke about Iranian pianists who had to manually re-tune Western pianos in order to play the Iranian scales. The fluid piano represents a space where Western and Eastern musicians can now meet on common ground.

Smith began experimenting in 1997, first developing a patented one key mechanism and microtonal, chromatic and diatonic dulcimers before inventing the final acoustic fluid piano we see today.

Arts Council England, South East has been highly supportive of Smith's innovation. In 2003, he received Grants for the arts funding to compose the soundtrack for silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and in 2005, he received a further £20,617 to compose and tour a soundtrack of the 1926 German silent film Faust and to build the fluid piano prototype.

Smith says: 'Arts Council funding was absolutely crucial to make this project happen.  You're only supposed to apply for funding if you can't make work happen without it - which was the case with my invention's development.

'On a personal level, the quality of support from the individuals was important. I'd like to thank the four music officers, regionally and in London, whose support was significant - Penny King, Phil Butterworth, Alistair Wills and Ben Lane, particularly as this was a more unusual art project because it is an invention.'

What's next for the fluid piano?

On Saturday 27 March 2010, there was an official launch event for the fluid piano in London's South Bank Centre, with performances from Smith and composers/pianists Matthew Bourne, Pam Chowhan, Nikki Yeoh, and Ramin Zoufonoun, a leading exponent of the Persian-tuned piano, who's also made a considerable contribution to Smith's invention. Smith is planning a UK and European tour for later this year.

More interestingly, the fluid piano has made a strong impact on the international stage, with media coverage in Saudi Arabia's The National and a long art feature on the piano for BBC Persian TV is currently scheduled for production, engaging Persian musicians and academics on their response to the piano.

The piano is also the subject of a documentary feature film by Polish director Rafael Lewandowski, (Cela, A Shadowed Gaze, Hearings, Children of Solidarnosc), produced by Eureka Media, and further developments are in the pipelines for this new invention.

The continuing success and international impact that Smith's fluid piano is making is proof that the Arts Council's support in early stages of artistic innovation can reap later rewards. 

'It's crucial for the Arts Council to support innovation, to take the risk,' said Smith. 'I knew my invention wasn't a risk, but their support shows they are prepared to take that leap. There is a lot of conservatism and complacency and it's one of the struggles I've had to deal with. That's why it's so important.'