Dr. Zubin Kanga brings classical music to the frontier of music tech innovation

The Cyborg Pianist, composer, and technologist redefines traditional composition with a futuristic eye.

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Dr. Zubin Kanga is a musical alchemist who seamlessly blends the timeless elegance of classical tradition with the cutting-edge of electronic music innovation. He has pioneered interdisciplinary musical experiences for over a decade, integrating motion sensors, AI, virtual reality, and more into his performances. Kanga's trilogy of touring projects—Dark Twin, Cyborg Pianist, and Piano Ex Machina—highlight his wizard-like mastery of the piano and his thirst for experimentation.

Benjamin Tassie – Earth of the Slumbering and Liquid Trees

As a lecturer in Musical Performance and Digital Arts at Royal Holloway University, Kanga leads the Cyborg Soloists project, pushing the boundaries of music with AI, interactive visuals, and hybrid instruments. With over 130 world premieres and collaborations with esteemed composers, Kanga's influence extends from major festivals to academic institutions, solidifying his legacy as a visionary in contemporary music.

“As a musician focusing on contemporary music – and the commissioning of new works – I had been exploring all the new ways of extending the piano for many years. This included some works with electronics between 2009 and 2012 alongside acoustic works,” Kanga explains.

“It was in 2014 that I started focusing on combining the piano and keyboards with electronics, visuals, and other types of technologies, and the success of a series of tours I did at this time cemented this as the primary focus for my work as a musician over the next decade.”

Since 2021, Kanga has been running a major research project called Cyborg Soloists, allowing him to work with a wide range of sensors, software, and digital instruments, from AI to brain sensors to the innovative new instruments created by ROLI.

“Cyborg Soloists is a research project supported by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, and hosted at Royal Holloway, University of London,” he says. “It brings together dozens of musicians, researchers, and industry partners to explore a wide range of new music-technology interactions, including new digital instruments, new audio-visual interactions, the use of motion and bio-sensors, and AI.”

“We’re very happy to have had ROLI as one of our Project Partners on this project, and have been exploring how the unique capabilities of these instruments can be used and extended with the innovative approaches of the UK’s leading experimental composers, and how their varied practices can be influenced by these instruments.”

Overcoming instrumental limitations

With his work exploring the boundaries of music and technology, MPE technology became an integral part in shaping the sound of his compositions.

“A big limitation of the piano is the inability to alter the sound after it’s played. This carries over into standard MIDI keyboard instruments, where although you can choose from an infinite variety of samples, the mechanism is still modeled on that of the piano,” says Kanga.

MPE technology allows keyboardists to go beyond these traditional limitations, shaping sounds through touch, movement and pressure across the keys. I can make sounds bend, swell or repeat at different speeds – the fact that these extra dimensions of control are still linked to the keys allows this additional expression to be seamlessly integrated with my playing techniques.”

It wasn't long before ROLI instruments made their way into his usual setup after briefly experimenting with the early Seaboards used by musician colleagues at gigs in the past, as well as the Seaboard BLOCK.

“I had tried out the Seaboard BLOCK used by Caitlin Rowley, a composer-performer who later became part of my team at Cyborg Soloists. But it was only during Cyborg Soloists that I got to really explore them in detail. I use a variety of keyboard instruments, from the piano to MIDI keyboards to analogue synthesizers. But the ROLI instruments are very different from these, both in their playing surface (especially the Seaboard) and the additional dimensions of expression they provide.

Elaborating more on his equipment, Kanga’s usual setup varies depending on the works written for him. “I’ve had a couple of works that used two connected LUMI keyboards (one with TouchPads as well) connected to Ableton and fine-tuned using the ROLI Dashboard. In my current works using the Seaboard RISE 2, it’s combined with one or two other large MIDI keyboards (usually configured in rising tiers, with the Seaboard RISE 2 closest to me) with them all connected to the audio via Ableton. This allows the Seaboard to play a special expressive role for particular sounds, combined with other more standard keyboard instruments.”

Collaboration as a catalyst

In Kanga’s musical releases, ROLI instruments played significant roles in the creation and performance of certain compositions, notably the use of LUMI Keys in Alex Groves’ composition ‘Single Form (Swell)’ and Benjamin Tassie’s use of Seaboard RISE 2 with ‘Earth of the Slumbering and Liquid Trees’.

‘Machine Dreams’, released on Nonclassical, started as a project where I wanted to do a whole album and programme just on keyboards and synthesizers – my first project without a piano. It was also influenced by a lot of sci-fi themes, films and soundtracks, with a focus on cyborgs and the extension of both the body and the instrument,” Kanga explains.

Alex Groves is a composer I’ve admired for many years, and his ‘Single Form (Swell)’ was written specifically for the LUMI Keys. The work is a sensuous ocean of sound, building gradually shifting loops of field recordings into mesmerizing textures that are morphed and shaped using two LUMI Keys keyboards. I’ve performed the piece live several times, including at the University of Oxford, and at the album launch at Rix Mix in London, and it’s always a big hit with audiences. Alex is currently working on a new work for me using the Seaboard RISE 2 to control samples of nightclub sounds.”

Alex Groves – Single Form (Swell)

Similarly, when working with Benjamin Tassie for ‘Earth of the Slumbering and Liquid Trees’, sampling historical organs and using Seaboard RISE 2 to perform the samples sparked another creative excursion.

Benjamin Tassie had combined historical instruments from the Renaissance and Baroque periods with contemporary techniques in a number of works, so when I discussed a collaboration with him, we both loved the idea of taking historical organs from across the country and playing them in a single work using the latest keyboard technologies – in this way, these organs that are distributed across many cities can be heard and combined together, and performed in any space by one performer.”

“Tassie went on several field trips to meticulously record each of these organs, including the Van Straten Organ, a reconstruction of a late-Mediaeval Dutch organ (dating from 1479) in Amsterdam, period instruments at St Cecilia’s Hall, University of Edinburgh, and the Wingfield Organ, a reconstructed English Tudor organ.”

“The Seaboard RISE 2 was used to subtly control various effects on the organ sounds, particularly the speed of a Low Frequency Oscillator. This is especially striking at the end which is played on just the Seaboard, where changes in my hand position while holding the chords result in changes to the rhythmic cycles of these pulsing sounds, creating a mesmerizing and always-changing texture. We’re delighted with the piece and the reception to the packed premiere at the National Gallery in London, and are planning a number of touring performances in the coming years.”

Zubin Kanga: Cyborg Pianist | NMC

Between using LUMI Keys for ‘Single Form (Swell)’ and Seaboard RISE 2 for ‘Earth of the Slumbering and Liquid Trees’, Kanga had intentionally chosen those instruments to experiment with their capabilities, and challenge the composers’ creative potential.

“As part of Cyborg Soloists we wanted to explore ways of using these instruments that hadn’t been seen before, and also to see how these exciting composers could be inspired into new creative approaches through using these instruments.”

Kanga notes that most contemporary classical composers write for acoustic instruments, so composing for expressive digital instruments has impacted the practice of these composers, changing the way they work and influencing others. “They’ve also been able to explore new ways that experimental techniques can be combined with these cutting-edge digital instruments, which could hopefully impact on musicians across a variety of genres.”

Potential and pitfalls of AI music-making

The conversation around the use of artificial intelligence in music making has been on everyone’s minds lately. With seemingly infinite creative potential as well as fears from artists around its use, we asked Kanga’s thoughts on how we can use this technology in an inspiring and creative way.

“We’ve done several works integrating AI-generated sound, video, and speech into the pieces. There’s great potential for AI to be used as a creative tool by musicians to assist and extend their creative possibilities, and make music-making more accessible.”

While Kanga’s outlook is positive, he doesn’t hesitate to say that AI is no replacement for human creativity. “We should also be mindful of the potential for exploitation and displacement of artists by AI technologies,” he adds as a caveat. “Although I’ve seen some very impressive examples of AI-generated music, I don’t think it will replace truly innovative music making.”

Find Zubin Kanga on his official website, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.

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