Avant electronic explorer Matthew Herbert brings twenty pianos to life in a virtual performance

20 Pianos

Dutch premiere

Matthew Herbert

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Twenty pianos from all over the world, each with its own timbre, tuning and history – from a Steinway at the Sydney Opera House to a battered old primary school piano and the instrument John Lennon composed Imagine on. In this composition by Matthew Herbert, icon of experimental electronic dance music, the pianos are all ‘ beamed up’ virtually.

With the use of the latest techniques, pianist Sam Beste turns a simple table into a virtual piano. As well as calling up the sounds of the original pianos, he also illustrates the pianos’ fascinating histories with photos and other documentation. The result is a Proustian evocation of piano memory, giving the featured instruments infinite depth.
Programme Icoon

Background Information

20 Pianos is a creation by the British electronic musician Matthew Herbert (1972), a performance involving twenty pianos, each with its own story. It had its world premiere on 16 May 2014 in Oxford. The performers are pianists Sarah Nicolls and Sam Beste.

'20 pianos tells the story of twenty pianos from all over the world,' Herbert explains. Their different tones, timbres tunings and histories will be amplified – from Steinway instruments at Abbey Road or the Sydney Opera House to battered primary school pianos and forgotten out-of-tune family pianos. The sound of each piano will be sampled, and photographs as well as oral histories will document each instrument.

The performance will begin with an introduction by the creator, in which he will talk about the instruments and how the project was conceived and developed. The main composition, Twenty pianos, which was inspired by the stories of the instruments and their owners, will be performed by one pianist, namely Sam Beste. In the so-called Story Pieces the pianos are played 'virtually', through a visual installation, accompanied by parts of the story of the piano being played. The corresponding Response Pieces are current works or improvisations with each respective piano in mind. The programme is concluded by Steve Reich's Radio Phase, in which the twenty pianos will once more feature.

The twenty pianos do not appear on stage; instead, there is a visual installation which can be played. The New Radiohonic Workshop, of which Herbert is artistic leader, have developed bespoke software and hardware to transform a simple table into a virtual piano and to call up images of the sampled piano as it's being 'played'. One of the featured pianos is the the one on which John Lennon composed Imagine, which is now owned by George Michael.


20 Pianos is a Proustian evocation of piano memory, part performance art and technological wizardry. Herbert has invited each organisation presenting his project to choose one instrument themselves which they would like to be part of the perfomance. The Holland Festival is still thinking about this, but will add a piano of their own.


Matthew Herbert (1972) is a prolific and accomplished musician, whose range of works extends from numerous albums (including the much-celebrated Bodily Functions) to Ivor Novello nominated film scores (Life in a Day). Herbert has (either under his own name or as Doctor Rockit, Radioboy or Wishmountain) performed thousands of concerts all around the world, from the Sydney Opera House to the Hollywood Bowl. He has remixed iconic artists, including Quincy Jones, Serge Gainsbourg ad Ennio Morricone and has worked with musical acts as diverse as Bjørk and Dizzee Rascal. He has produced other artists, such as Roisin Murphy, The Invisible, Micachu and Merz, and released some of these works alongside others on his own label, Accidental Records. His other collaborators include chef Heston Blumenthal, playwright Caryl Churchill and writer Will Self, but he is most known for working with sound, turning ordinary or so-called found sound into electronic music. One of his most recent works, One Pig, followed the life of a pig from birth to plate and beyond. Another of his works, The End of Silence, is a large-scale composition based on one single sample of a bomb explosion in Iraq. For Deutsche Grammophon, Herbert created a 're-composition' of Mahlers Tenth Symphony, based on an existing recording of a performance and field recordings in death-related venues. Matthew Herbert is currently involved in relaunching an online Museum of Sound. He was recently appointed creative director of the New Radiophonic Workshop.


Sam Beste is a musician, composer and producer from London, in demand as a pianist since his teens. At 16 he declined an offer to study at the Royal Academy of Music, instead taking up the opportunity to tour with Amy Winehouse, whom he played with until her untimely death in 2011. His career as a pianist has taken him around the globe performing in some of the world's most prestigious venues and festivals with the likes of Tom Jones and Carleen Anderson. Since 2010 Beste’s time has been predominantly devoted to his band Hejira, with whom he collectively composes, arranges, produces and performs. Hejira's debut album was co-produced by Matthew Herbert and released on Herbert's Accidental Records imprint in October 2013. In addition to Hejira, Beste has also been working extensively with Herbert on the electronic pioneer's own releases, recording and co-writing on his latest solo records One Pig and The End of Silence, and collaboratively composing the soundtrack to a film score and the iPhone game Pentapuzzle. Sam Beste is a visiting piano tutor at Goldsmith's College, London, after graduating from the institution himself in 2009 with a BA in Popular Music Studies.


Sarah Nicolls is a UK-based experimental pianist, at the forefront of innovations in piano performance. She works with interactive technologies, such as body sensors and motion capture to augment the acoustic piano, bringing it into the realm of electronic music with visceral live performances. Sarah Nicolls also invented the ‘Inside-out piano’, a sculptural feast of an instrument designed to be played inside and out. She is currently recording an album of her own music on it and has recently been given funding to build the second prototype. In the rest of her concert career, Nicolls is a frequent soloist with the London Sinfonietta, giving world premieres such as Larry Goves’ Piano Concerto and Richard Barrett’s Mesoptamia. She is regularly broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and features on several CDs. Sarah Nicolls is a Senior Lecturer at Brunel University and has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Brunel Research Initiative and Enterprise Fund (BRIEF), the Athena Swan award and Arts Council England. She writes about live electronics and compositional collaborations and has been published in the Leonardo Music Journal (LMJ20). As Artistic Director of the BEAM Festival, Sarah Nicolls will be the Music Chair for New Interfaces for Musical Expression 2014 in London.


Matthew Herbert, Steve Reich
Sarah Nicolls, Sam Beste
sound design
Hugh Jones
Third Ear Music
commissioned by
Third Ear Music with funds from the PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music Biennial New Music Biennial is a PRS for Music Foundation initiative, in partnership with Creative Scotland, Arts Council England and the British Council, and presented in collaboration with BBC Radio 3, NMC Recordings, Southbank Centre and Glasgow UNESCO City of Music. Additional support has been given by John S. Cohen Foundation, Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Incorporated Society of Musicians, The Bliss Trust, The Finzi Trust and Hope Scott Trust

‘He is one of the artists to have made a considerable impact … while striving to be innovative and experimental.’

The Guardian