Composer, inventor and concert pianist Charlie Hooper-Williams (performing as Larkhall) uses custom-built machines to create new sounds and visuals that accent, highlight and accompany his stirring, beautiful performances. Originally from Chicago, he has made his home in the UK for the last decade, spending time in London, Cambridge, Bath and Bristol as well as on the road.
In his youth as a classical pianist, Larkhall was a prizewinner at the International Shostakovich Piano Competition. Upon leaving that rarified world he toured with several bands, performing from SXSW and CMJ festivals to London’s Cafe Oto, and collaborated with multi-Grammy-winning ensemble eighth blackbird. He has performed works by Rzewski and Corigliano, including city-level premieres. He briefly stepped into the tech industry to help develop the app Shazam, after which he returned to music, now composing his own works.
Following a run at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, Larkhall was awarded a development grant from UKRI. This performance will showcase the results of his work developing a “harmonics machine” which changes the sound of some notes of the piano, an “infinite resonator” which allows the piano’s sound to build and grow without limit, and a series of onstage pixels and visual projections which interpret each composition in a new and engaging way.
Don’t miss the chance to experience Larkhall’s unique blend of music and technology in his upcoming performances.
Read more: Ben Eshmade reflects on Larkhall’s history, origin and musical language
Larkhall ponders and plunders the potential of music through a future-system of his own devising; storytelling in both sound and vision. From the piano this digital dreamer takes on a multitude of adventures, leading you down the twists and turns of different vistas, staring upwards at a starry sky, a kaleidoscope of shifting shapes or a labyrinth of pathways.
With each movement of fingers, every note on the piano is given to a purpose-built system, a computer interface named Otto. This real time collaborator and translator takes the notes and the data, turning and twisting melody into structure. Through algorithms, through imagination, Larkhall and Otto work in tandem together inviting you to a communal cinematic experience.
The concert (or theatrical experience) to which Larkhall invites us could be thought of as a series of questions or paradigms. For instance, can you keep one move ahead and predict the destination of music as it unfolds on the screen? Are you able to hear shapes, patterns, or projected words in your head? Can a two-hundred-year-old machine and instrument made up of strings and hammers be something more?
Whether it be the aforementioned Otto or his ‘harmonics machine’ (a device which translates simple piano notes to otherworldly sounds), Larkhall’s approach to music, art and poetry seems very much of the ‘now’. But it’s a lifetime of experience, exploration, reading, watching, and learning that have led him to present his most personal, personable, post-classical music to date.
Where did his relationship with technology, sound and sensory experience begin? Well, let’s go back: a child on the carpet soaking up every detail and vibration of the family’s stereo. Later a more portable tape recorder allowed him to capture the sound and signal from the radio station, freezing a fleeting moment, sampling this rare musical mineral.
His parents brought a piano into the house and into his life, once again connecting with his inquisitive side: he wanted or needed to understand how the sound was created, where it came from, where it went– the mechanics how the dynamic pressure of a finger or various fingers on his hand led to the striking sustained sound he heard and enjoyed.
You could say this musical journey was also mirrored by his own winding path in life. He was led from study in Los Angeles and Chicago to another side of the globe. Eventually settling into a pastoral existence in the Southwest of England – soaking up influences as went, whether that be the noise of the city or the silence of suburbia.
Larkhall has never stopped bending, looking inside, and tinkering with the piano, but while studying in the States, he realised that hours of practise didn’t necessarily unlock the potential of the instrument. For that he had to return to a different language he had first encountered in middle school. MIDI was a way of moving from analogue to digital, a keyboard performed by the operator or musician captured the instructions on the identity, timing, duration and volume of the notes performed.
Music, then, was no longer just notation— dots on manuscript paper— a shift has begun and he started to see and hear the potential of building a digital language that allowed the freedom to manipulate, extrapolate and find a way of setting free the music.
The music itself is made up of songs without words, but that doesn’t mean that they lack moments of meaning. They are filled with diary-like reminiscences: a remembrance of a space or feeling such as a Chicago cocktail bar, a Berlin shack or even a monastery.
It looks outwards to the cold glacial mystery of space or looks below to Ernst Haeckel’s drawings of microscopic ocean life. It contains personal reflection whether that be piano notes borrowed from a loved one (elaborate and extended) or just the thoughts and feelings on embarking on fatherhood.
We return to the unanswered question which lies beneath this project of whether representing music visually can affect how you feel the music in your head and heart? The human touch is perhaps the last thing you’d expect from a technology-driven approach, coding, and algorithms, but it is hard not to get drawn into this charming style of writing and dreaming aloud.
Larkhall likes to collaborate when he finds those who have a similar outlook in life and art. Though he is never far from challenging perceptions and norms, creating a collaboration, a collage of words and poetry with Artificial Intelligence in his current set list.
Should you have the chance to meet and spend time with Larkhall and Otto, it is not something you will regret doing. Sit back and watch them build something together in person— a combination of piano, effect pedals, digital processing power. It’s a new way of taking a small music idea and blowing it up large and in many different forms on the screen, a new form of storytelling to which you are invited.