Toshio Iwai

Piano - As Media Image (1995)

In 1996 I saw the Mediascape exhibition at the Guggenheim SoHo. A collection of digital art, some interactive, it was bold show from a major museum. It received mixed reviews — but one of the pieces there left a lasting impression on me. It was “Piano – As Media Image” by Toshio Iwai.

From the exhibition’s catalog:

[the piece] combines a real grand piano with virtual images. The player uses a trackball to place luminous points, representing musical notes, on a horizontal projection plane. The points travel slowly toward the keyboard. Accelerating shortly before they reach their goal, they generate musical notes that appear to hit the keys. … As the sound fades the illuminated image loses speed and, rotating slowly, turns into a starlike crystal.

You can see a video (even if it’s not the greatest quality) of it in action here:

Iwai’s declared goal is to open up a new field of experience by “combining physical objects and virtual images,” a project that has particular significance “in a time when the new digital technologies supplant our physical experiences with virtual, media-ted ones.”

And it really worked. The scale of the installation, the heaviness of the piano and the fullness of the real-piano sound that came from it — in contrast with the semi-transparent scrim on which the notes were projected and the delicateness of the trackball-only interaction — gave this piece a quality that would be impossible if it was purely digital.

Below are videos of some other projects of his. They’re definitely cool. But I especially like the physicality of the Piano.