Co.Design

This Piano Is Played By Clouds

And it sounds a lot like Schoenberg.

We often stare at the clouds to see the images hiding inside. But maybe we should be listening instead. Cloud Piano is an installation coming soon to L’assaut de la Menuiserie in Saint-Etienne, France. A sensor on the building’s roof tracks the clouds as they come by. And through the magic of technology, these clouds are able to press keys on a piano sitting alone on a stage below.

The piece was developed by David Bowen, who has a certain obsession with translating natural phenomenon into mechanical works of art. But what makes Bowen’s work stand out is that, whereas many such artists will start with a bit of nature, augment it through layers of algorithms, and end up with a final artistic product that feels illogically connected to the source medium, Bowen is a literalist. His works connect Earth and invention in a 1:1 ratio.

With Cloud Piano, the system Bowen built actually slides the clouds’ shapes straight over a keyboard as if they are fingers, so the clouds are actually playing the piano in a very literal sense—well, as literal of a sense as possible.

In the past, Bowen has used a Kinect motion tracking rig to map the ripples of ocean waves and mimic their movements through a kinetic sculpture, essentially moving the ocean indoors to live on a ceiling. (By counterpoint, when Leo Villareal mapped ocean waves onto 25,000 LEDs installed on the Bay Bridge, the results were stunning, but because countless computer calculations sat between the water and the lights, it was impossible for the human mind to deconstruct their relationship at play.)

As for how Cloud Piano actually sounds, Co.Design editor Suzanne LaBarre immediately heard Schoenberg. And I’d agree. It's rhythmically sporadic and unapologetically atonal. Who would have thought, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century was floating over our heads all along.

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