Stiff String Theory / by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music Blog Contributor Patrick Marschke


What images came to mind when you read that word? An asymmetrical row of black and white rectangles was probably not far from the first.

Still life on the piano ('CORT') , Picasso (1911) via

Still life on the piano ('CORT'), Picasso (1911) via

The piano carries with it an unparalleled burden of symbology, association, and ubiquity, perhaps even to the point of completely obscuring its origin and the elemental enchantment with the sound that codified its place in history.

Bartolomeo Cristofori’s pianoforte, invented sometime around 1700, solved a unique problem. While the human voice could easily and quickly jump from a whisper to a shout, claviers (harpsichord, clavichord, and other proto-pianos) had an incredibly limited dynamic range, restricting their expressive potential. The mechanism of a harpsichord is basically a simple plucking lever — no matter how hard you press the key the “pluck” produces essentially the same sound. Instrument builders came up with some clever solutions around these limitations: additional strings, “manuals”, and fancy mechanisms. Composers also dealt with the harpsichord’s lack of sustain by exploring increasingly complex ornamentations (see figure 1.).

Figure 1. Baroque Trill Instructions via  Wikipedia Commons

Figure 1. Baroque Trill Instructions via Wikipedia Commons

Then comes the pianoforte, its name designating its solution: piano = quiet, forte = loud. The instrument was able to gracefully maneuver through quiet, loud, and all the places in between. Its mechanism literally throws a hammer at the strings, retaining and amplifying the velocity from the keystroke of the player. It is important to note that even though the mechanism of the piano looks very complicated, touch is integral to its workings — pianists obsess over every aspect of the relationship between their fingers, arms, and body to the keys. All that said, the velocity of the hammer and the “touch” of the pianist are only two of the variables that contribute to the sound of a piano: how hard or soft are the felt covered hammers? How do we deal with all the resonance of those newly unbridled strings? How do we tune all those strings?  Even physicist Richard Feynman was enchanted by the alchemy of the instrument enough to write a letter to his piano tuner.

Piano hammer mechanism

Piano hammer mechanism

For a more detailed evolution of keyboard instruments with listening examples check out SPCO’s neighbor Schubert Club’s Evolution of the Piano — Twin Cities readers can even stop by the museum to see the instruments in person.

One might think that by 2018 we would have “figured out” the sound of a piano — after all it's just a few strings right? While we have made a tremendous amount of progress in the realm of digital piano synthesis and sampling, anyone that has spent time with a piano, from a spinet to a 10-foot grand, will acknowledge that there is something about the feel, sound, and aura of the acoustic piano that digital versions haven’t quite pinned down. That is not to say nothing has come of computers trying to be piano’s in their own ways: Dan Trueman’s bitKlavier exemplifies the incredible direction that digital instrument building is headed.

Etude #4 from Dan Trueman's Nostalgic Synchronic Etudes for prepared digital piano, performed by Adam Sliwinski.

With all this history come some baggage. Pianist Michael Mizrahi summed this up eloquently in the album notes “The Bright Motion” (New Amsterdam):

“For centuries the piano has been a popular sounding board for new compositional ideas and styles—the ingenious explorations of compositional technique in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the pathbreaking musical ideas set forth in Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the previously unimaginable feats of virtuosity achieved by Liszt, and the sonic and formal experiments of Schoenberg’s piano pieces. Much of this cherished repertoire has been central to my solo career as a classical pianist.
By the end of the twentieth century, the piano had lost some of its status—compositions for solo piano declined in prominence at the artistic vanguard, some composers citing the intimidating tradition of canonical piano works as a factor in their reluctance to write for solo piano. However, in the twenty-first century, many composers of my generation, including those featured here, have come to view the piano as an instrument particularly receptive to new music. With this album of recently composed works for solo piano, I showcase the continued vitality of an instrument that evokes an exceptionally rich musical heritage yet still is capable of expressing the most contemporary of musical ideas.”

Mizrahi, along with many previously featured Liquid Music artists like Vicky Chow, Nils Frahm, Hauschka, David Friend, Bryan Nichols, Emily Manzo, deVon Gray (to name a few) are each paving uniquely exhilarating contemporary explorations of piano, proving that piano isn’t going anywhere.

← Listen to examples of the distance piano has gone in its three centuries with this curated survey of solo piano works.

Grand Band takes this exploration to its logical extreme, relishing in the unparalleled sonic experience of the soundboards, strings, hammers, and keys and multiplying it by six. There are few if not zero chances to hear what six pianos sound like on one stage together: don't miss this one.

Grand Band will perform at the Ordway Concert Hall on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 7:30pm. Purchase tickets here.

Read more:
Grand Band: A Curious Synthesis
Interview: Missy Mazzoli on "Three Fragile Systems"

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