Duet for One Pianist

In 1989, composer and researcher Jean-Claude Risset‘s series of interactive sketches for piano and Disklavier entitled Duet for One Pianist explored the performative possibilities made available to pianists through the augmentation of emotive human musical gesture with the precise reactive and computational capabilities afforded by computer-based musical systems. As computer and musical software systems have evolved, the Max software patches created by Risset and researcher Scott Van-Duyne at the MIT Media Lab have been updated and maintained to allow the pieces to be performed using contemporary hardware and software systems. In distinct contrast, Risset’s original hand-notated musical score for the work – representing performance notation for the human pianist alongside a varying level of detail representing the computer’s response, itself an integral part in the work – remains the authoritative representation available to performers, researchers and archivists alike.

This project works towards the augmentation of Risset’s score through the production of a comprehensive multi-voiced notated archival score edition of Duet for One Pianist, as well as symbolic and data representations for each of the eight works derived from live performance data, and a complimentary and complete series of audio and visual recordings of Duet.

The project was sponsored by a Visiting Student Researcher Fellowship in Humanities and Arts, of the France-Stanford Center for the year 2016-2017, that allowed for extensive work with the composer.

An upcoming publication about this work titled ” Analog and Digital Concerts in the Recreation, Modeling and Preservation of Contemporary Piano Repertoire” will appear on Leonardo Music Journal 27  themed “History and Memory”.

Leonardo Music Journal (LMJ)


Risset’s eight sketches functionally receive incoming MIDI messages, enact score-following behaviors through an analysis of the incoming MIDI stream, carry out predefined dynamic or static processes designed by the composer, and subsequently generate an outgoing MIDI stream of these processes to be fed back to the Disklavier itself for acoustic rendering.

As Risset described it:

“In my Duet, I have explored some simple compositional relations between the pianist’s part and the computer’s part: translations or symmetries in the time-frequency space (that is, pitch transpositions or interval inversions); triggering by the pianist of specific patterns (e.g. arpeggios) or stored musical sequences which can be influenced by certain performance parameters (for instance, the tempo of the sequences follows the tempo of the pianist; or this tempo is a function of the loudness of the notes played by the pianist); canon-like imitation (the computer plays a melody derived from that played by the pianist by transposition and change of tempo).”

After my first encounter and performance of the piece [video link], I performed it in several occasions. In 2008 during the composer’s residency at CCRMA, in collaboration with Rob Hamilton, we updated the Max/MSP patches to run on Max v4 and created an opener patch that allows for a continuous performance of the set of Sketches (previously one had to load each patch separately and ‘bang’ each one to begin performance).

Over the years I have been asked several times by pianists to send the patches and score for performance but unfortunately not all of these requests have resulted in performances. In part to aid other performers in understanding these historic works and in part to archive the generated musical output in a technology-independent manner, I decided to undertake the task of creating an archival score for these pieces using traditional piano notation.


During my work on the Duets, I saw firsthand the difficulties encountered by the composer to update his software to work with an updated version of Max/MSP. Technological obsolescence and the fast pace of hardware and software change makes the future of these important computer music composition and performance systems uncertain. The musical information contained in the software must be preserved even if the technology used to create it changes or becomes inaccessible.

One method of archiving a work like Duet is the preservation of the generated musical score data, so that future software systems can recreate these musical works without a functioning version of the original software or computer system. This project uses traditional musical notation alongside captured data-sets and archival audio recordings to preserve these pieces.


Digital archeology step by step

Working from a set of Max/MSP patches I have used the following step-by-step process to create the archival scores:

  • Studied the software and performance scores, learned to play the pieces, and learned to properly setup the Disklavier piano and electronics.
  • Performed many live performances with the live interactive system.
  • Recorded piano audio and MIDI data using distinct MIDI outputs and hardware MIDI splitters (one channel for pianist, one for computer output).
  • Manually typeset Risset’s original piano part in Finale.
  • Imported the MIDI output from the CPU into Finale as a guide, then scored that data using the piano part’s rhythmic structure and style as a guide.
  • Verified the generated MIDI data.


The first of the studies to be transcribed is Etude, No. 5, Stretch. I have completed an archival audio recording, recordings of the dual MIDI data streams (piano and cpu), scored the piano performance score using Finale, and scored the computer part on a second Finale staff.

The Max/MSP patches can be seen below: the main “opener” patch that allows me to easily launch each of the sketches, the subpatch for Stretch and a small subpatch that I used to verify the computer’s MIDI output in real-time.

Max/MSP launcher (top), Stretch patcher (bottom) and "namer" sub-patch used to verify MIDI output.

Max/MSP launcher (top), Stretch patcher (bottom) and “namer” sub-patch used to verify MIDI output.


To make the recordings, audio and MIDI were recorded simultaneously using Ardour 4 in the CCRMA stage.

Audio and dual-channel Midi recording in Ardour 4.
                                            Audio and dual-channel Midi recording in Ardour 4.


I then transcribed Risset’s original piano score into Finale and transcribed the generated computer part on a second staff.

"Stretch", mm. 1. Original hand-written score (top); Piano + MIDI score (bottom).
                 “Stretch”, mm. 1. Original hand-written score (top); Piano + MIDI score (bottom).


While the MIDI data generated by Max contains the correct pitch and timing information, simply importing this into Finale will not result in an accurate human readable score. See the excerpt below of Finale’s import.

Direct MIDI import of captured data from Duet sketch No. 5, "Stretch" into Finale.
Direct MIDI import of captured data from Duet sketch No. 5, “Stretch” into Finale.


Full Scores will be uploaded here after permission.




  Jean-Claude RISSET (1938-2016)

Born in 1938, Jean-Claude Risset studied piano, harmony, counterpoint, composition with André Jolivet, and mathematics and physics at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. While he always wrote works for instruments, from his 1963 Prélude for orchestra to Filtres for two pianos, Phases for large orchestra, Triptyque  for clarinet and orchestra, Escalas for large orchestra (2002), commissioned by Musica Viva and the Bayerischer Rundfunk,  he is also known as one of the pioneers of computer music. In the sixties, he worked at Bell Laboratories with Max Mathews, the father of computer music, on imitations of instruments, on acoustic illusions, analogous to the visual illusions that can be seen in etchings by Escher, for instance sounds which glide up endlessly, or which go down the scale but end up at a higher pitch, and on composing sound textures. He implemented in Orsay the first system in Europe for sound synthesis. At the inception of IRCAM, Pierre Boulez asked him to head the computer department.

In works such as Little Boy, Mutations, Songes or Sud, Jean-Claude Risset takes advantage of synthesis to sculpt the sound, to inject expressivity and musicality into it – to composing the sound itself, beyond composition with sounds, and to play with time within the sound rather than arranging sounds in time. He has realized a number of mixed works in which synthetic sounds are tightly woven with instruments and voices: Dialogues, Inharmonique, Passages, Voilements, played by soloists such as Irène Jarsky, Jane Manning, Linda Hirst, Michel Oudar, Jean-Claude Pennetier, Georges Pludermacher,  Mari Kimura, Roberto Fabbriciani, Pierre-Yves Artaud, Robert Aitken, Katrin Zenz, Michel Portal, Daniel Kientzy … As composer in résidence at Media Laboratory, M.I.T., he implemented in 1989 the first Duet for one pianist, in which the pianist is accompanied on the same piano by a virtual partner sensitive to his or her playing. His piece Sud for 4-track tape was the first electroacoustic work ever proposed at the music option of the French baccalauréat. He pursued research on computer music at the Laboratoire de Mécanique et d’Acoustique of CNRS in Marseilles until his passing, in November 2016. Among other awards, he has received the Ars Electronica Prize (1987), the Grand Prix National de la Musique of France (1990), the Ars nova Prize from Prague (1976), the EAR Prize from Budapest (1997), the Magisterium Prize from Bourges (1998), the Gold Medal of CNRS (1999). He was Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and Commandeur des Arts et Lettres. His works appear on thirty compact disks, notably the monographic CDs INA C1003, WERGO 2013-50,GMEM EI-06 and INA C1019.


1.  C. Nanou, Hamilton, R. 2009. “For Jean-Claude: [re]Presenting Duet for One Pianist” In Proceedings of the International Computer Music Association Conference, Montreal, Canada.

2.  Risset, J.C., 1990. “From Piano to Computer to Piano”, in Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference, Glasgow, Scotland, pp. 15-19.

3.  Risset, J.C., Van Duyne, S. 1996. “Real-time interaction with a computer-controlled acoustic piano”, Computer Music Journal, 1996, Vol. 20, no 1, pp. 62-75.

4.  Risset, J.C., 1999. “Composing in Realtime?”, Contemporary Music Review, Singapore, Harwood Academic Publishers, Vol. 18, Part 3, pp. 31-39.






This  performance of Duet for One Pianist was recorded live on December 14, 2004 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California as part of a presentation entitled “Music Meets the Computer” featuring a discussion between electronic music pioneers Max Mathews, John Chowning and Curtis Roads.

A series of archival MIDI recordings of the work are being prepared alongside audio and visual recordings of Duet in performance. Samples of MIDI parts for a subset of the works (as played by both the computer and by the pianist) can be found below.









Click to access for-jean-claude-representing-duet-for-one-pianist.pdf






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