Kari Ikonen’s Maqiano Sound


Ikonen combines his artistic creativity with a curiosity that led to inventing the Maqiano, a device that creates microtonal effects on an acoustic piano.

(Photo: Gerhard Ricter)

In a stylish Helsinki apartment with high-vaulted windows that ushered in the sunlight from the auroral Scandinavian summer evening, Kari Ikonen stood next to his grand piano, holding in his hand a compact black device above the tuning block. He sounded a low B-flat and carefully placed a second, smaller part on the corresponding strings struck by the hammer, nestling the first device over it.

Ikonen continued to play, and as he slid the device further up the strings away from the keyboard, the pitch started to raise, creeping up an entire semitone to B natural. Somehow, the device was acting like a pitch-bend wheel on a keyboard, only this was an acoustic piano. Were hidden claws and springs inside that black box, pulling on and detuning the strings?

“This one is made with magnets, actually,” Ikonen said via video from his native Finland, as he recounted two years of tinkering with various mechanisms to create microtonal effects on the piano, in order to more faithfully reproduce the maqam, the system of melodic modes found in Arabic music. He calls his invention the Maqiano (pronounced ma-key-ahn-o), a mash-up of the words “maqam” and “piano.”

“I’ve been into Arabic maqam and micro intervals for a long time,” said Ikonen, 47, who began studying that music more than 20 years ago. He found that his Moog analog synthesizer was the best solution to altering the pitch to conform to the non-Western tuning system, but he continued to search for a way to achieve a similar thing on the piano. After trying many different materials and techniques, Ikonen has found a workable, and marketable, solution. To avoid damage to the piano if it were accidently struck while clamped to the strings, Ikonen’s device holds and releases much like the magnetic charging system developed by Apple for their computers and phones. The magnets also allow for the device to be used on upright pianos as well as grands.

Ikonen plans to assemble and sell Maqianos himself, but eventually he hopes to license the product to manufacturers for worldwide distribution. “I hope that it will make some money, at least,” he said, wistfully. He has had, as of late, more free time than Euros, due to the pandemic-driven sabotage of the touring he had planned to promote his recent solo piano album, Impressions, Improvisations & Compositions (Ozella), while also showcasing an earlier prototype of the Maqiano. The hiatus was somewhat convenient, though, for it allowed Ikonen the time to further hone his invention and his business strategy. He would otherwise have spent roughly one-third of the year on the road, performing with his own trio and his pan-European collaboration Orchestra Nazionale Della Luna, along with concerts to address his burgeoning affair with solo piano.

It certainly wasn’t love at first sight. “I have to say that for a long time, I didn’t like to play alone at all,” admitted Ikonen, who has always enjoyed spontaneous interaction with others. But the pianist discovered something unique about solo playing. “I have total freedom to do whatever I feel in that moment, and nobody gets lost,” he said.

Ikonen’s innovative and idiosyncratic pianism works well for playing solo. On Impressions, Improvisations & Compositions, he displays a diverse repertoire of both songs and sound, playing on, around and inside the piano. The Maqiano is featured on several pieces, including two maqam compositions tailor-made for the device. His muscular treatment of Wayne Shorter’s “Pinnochio” is a tour de force of expressive virtuosity, and the evocative, cyclical ballad “The Evergreen Earth” is a nod to Ikonen’s concern for the environment. DB

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