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Ryan Gosling playing the Seaboard Grand in La La Land. Dale Robinette

That Weird Keyboard from La La Land Is Real, and It's a Hit

Feb 24, 2017

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have been widely commended for their roles in La La Land, taking home Golden Globes, Baftas and Screen Actors Guild Awards - and it's highly likely they'll have an Oscar or two to add to their collection on Sunday.

But what about another star of the show; an overlooked piece of new talent that was cooked up in London but is now making waves in Hollywood? It may have only been on the screen for a few minutes, but the futuristic keyboard played by Gosling during his scene performing with John Legend and the Messengers is worth taking notice of.

The Seaboard Grand synthesizer was invented in 2013 by Roland Lamb, founder of ROLI, a music technology company based in London, U.K. Like Gosling's character in the movie, Lamb is an accomplished jazz pianist, keen to push musical boundaries.

The high tech, $3,000 instrument lets you play between the keys, or notes, of an ordinary piano, achieving the kind of expression possible with a wind instrument like a saxophone or a string instrument such as a violin or a guitar. Its shape is modelled on a standard piano keyboard, but instead of black and white keys there is a rippling surface of soft silicone. By pressing into it, the musician can deepen the sound and bend the pitch of the instrument like you would with a guitar string.

Its use is widespread. "Like any new technology, it took a while for the Seaboard Grand to enter the mainstream," Will MacNamara, head of communications at ROLI, told TIME. "But now we're beginning to see it used in all kinds of ways - from artists like Steve Wonder to Megan Trainor."

But how did the Seaboard Grand find its way into the most nominated musical in Oscars history? "La La Land's executive music producer, Marius De Vries, was one of its early adopters," MacNamara says. "He knew Ryan's character was going to be in some sort of high tech musical act and he though the Seaboard Grand would be perfect because it's so cutting edge."

When the team received a call from the producers enquiring about the instrument just over a year ago, MacNamara said they were "delighted" to help out. "We were sold on the proposal of working on a film starring a jazz pianist, but we had no idea quite how big the movie would become. We've been kind of bowled over by it."

Although there's no way of proving the La La Land effect, MacNamara said there has been a noticeable increase in direct sales and enquiries regarding the Seaboard Grand online and in stores since the movie came out. All three of ROLI's dealers in Hollywood (Pierre's Fine Pianos, Sam Ash West Hollywood and Guitar Center West Hollywood) have sold out of the instrument in recent weeks. "There's definitely been an uplift."

For MacNamara, watching the Seaboard Grand scene on screen was a beautiful experience. "To see Ryan Gosling, who is not a pianist, play with so much skill and panache on an instrument that we see and use every day was just wonderful," he said. "And he looked like he was having fun. We just hope that his performance inspires others to try it out."

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