Gez Kahan considers the traditional piano….
I don’t get too much sleep at this time of year because I keep getting woken by dinosaurs. I realise many of you might assume I haven’t been woken at all and I’m still dreaming, strolling round Jurassic Park, stroking the tyrannosaurus and playing hide and seek with the velociraptors. That’ll be because you’re still wedded to the idea of dinosaurs as portrayed by the popular press – huge lumbering beasts, brain the size of a walnut, doomed to extinction by their failure to adapt to a little local difficulty such as a 10 kilometre-wide meteor crashing into Mexico.
Scientists, on the other hand, will tell you that ‘dinosaur’ in that sense is now no more than a metaphor for something whose day is past, and an inaccurate one at that. Scientists will tell you that dinosaurs are all around you to this day, diving off ice shelves, eating up t’worms from the graves of hatless Yorkshire folk, burying their heads in the sand (another inaccuracy according to the scientists, who have evidently had little to do with the MI industry), singing in the dead of night and wakening journos and musos with their squawking at dawn.
So up I get, and – being a muso as well as a journo – once I sense other folk are also up with the lark, I head to my own dinosaur for a bit of practice. This one, though, is a metaphorical dinosaur, once the ruler of the MI world but now suffering dwindling numbers after a series of extinction events including the invention of the phonograph, the Great Depression and the advent of radio.
There are still isolated pockets, generally in emerging nations, where growing prosperity allows the traditional piano to thrive as parents strive to give their kids the upbringing they wish they’d had for themselves. But even there, the conditions are different from when the burgeoning European middle class had large houses with thick walls and little else to entertain them. Cheek by jowl neighbours in flatland don’t take kindly to next-door’s real-life Clementi and Czerny drowning out the vicarious pleasures of Big Brother or The Voice – hence the inroads made by compact, headphone-equipped, digital alternatives. And lifestyle changes also mean that the steam piano can never relive its mid-late Victorian heyday – when did you last hear one being honky-tonked for a sing-song in a rub-a-dub?
For half its life, the piano was evolving in parallel with its users and its repertoire, adapting from the courtly 18th century square piano to the 19th century upright, and – as Liszt’s ferocity took over from Mozart’s delicacy – from a genteel chamber instrument to the sturdy concert grand. And then, about 140 years ago, following a couple of decades when improvements (particularly from the young Steinway company in New York) were landing in patent offices like confetti at a wedding, it effectively stopped changing. A few decades later, the popular repertoire began ossifying too. Switch on Classic FM if you don’t believe me, and clock the ratio of Beethoven and Chopin to Scriabin and Shostakovich.
What has so far saved the standard upright from complete extinction is that digitals haven’t matched up in sound, touch or resonance. But sampling has become more precise and now (in top end digitals) allows for dynamic changes in harmonic response (closely mirroring the sympathetic vibration one hears in a traditional instrument), along with extraneous elements such as key-off and damper release noises; the actions are no longer spring loaded as they were in the early days, but properly weighted and often – save for there being no strings and therefore no need for a hammer – indistinguishable from ‘the real thing’; and the pedalling is graded (as on a good grand) rather than being a simple on-off switch.
One of the big let-downs was always the digital piano’s speaker system, which couldn’t help being directional, when the ‘acoustic’ piano, being effectively a leaky box, immersed the player in the sound. So some digitals now include proper soundboards, which clobbers the portability angle but makes for a far more realistic playing experience.
It’s a two-way street: more and more traditional pianos include the option of a factory-fitted digital ‘silent’ playing system. As if to underline that point, this year Steinway – the T Rex of the concert hall – has made a big fuss over its new ‘Spirio’ player piano, incorporating digital playback technology. It’s not the first to do this (several others, notably Yamaha, predate it by many years), but it’s noteworthy that a bastion of tradition has opened its doors (and perhaps its eyes) to the new.
So here’s the question for future palaeontologists: what happened to the ‘traditional’ piano? Did it die out or adapt?
To put it another way, what defines a dinosaur? Long neck, legs like tree trunks and an addiction to pond weed? Razor-clawed hind legs, tiny forearms, jaws full of tearing teeth and an insatiable appetite for flesh? Or a microlight skeleton, flight-adapted feathers and a habit of singing when all I want to do is sleep?