Issue 24: The Piano, a Friend
Guèbru, Monk, Sakamoto, flat fingers, wrong notes, piano smashing contests and more
1. World Piano Day was celebrated last Wednesday, whatever that meant.
2. The producers behind The Great British Bake Off had a big hit last month with The Piano— described as ‘Bake Off for pianos’—a show in which amateur pianists were invited to perform on public pianos in major train stations, watched in secret by the singer Mika and classical maestro Lang Lang.
3. The Ethiopian composer, pianist and nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru died last week, aged 99, at the Debre Genet monastery in Jerusalem. Her compositions are graceful fusions of Ethiopian and Western music on themes of family, nature, religion and homesickness. Gentle, waltz-like pieces, decorated with sparkling, cascading runs and trills. Her sense of timing— idiosyncratic, almost bluesy—made her melodies sound like murmurations of starlings. Occasional hesitancies in her playing tinted them with melancholy. (Kate Molleson, in her fascinating book Sound on Sound, published last year, points out that the Ethiopian scale ‘tizita’ major “is usually used to convey longing—the word literally means “yearning” in Amharic.”) Once heard, her music is unmistakable.
Guèbru was the daughter of a wealthy political family in Addis Ababa. As a child she was sent abroad to be educated in Switzerland with her older sister. She began her music education on the violin but it was the piano that captured her imagination after being taken to a concert by a blind pianist. In her twenties—after the turmoil of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, and World War Two—she was offered the opportunity to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Her career dream was dashed when her travel visa was mysteriously denied by the Ethiopian authorities. Heartbroken, she slowly began her religious journey, and gave up music for a decade. It wasn’t until the 1960s that she returned to the piano and began composing her own music and releasing records.
4. Guèbru once said that “the piano has been my best friend since the age of eight.” I think I know what she meant. I began learning the instrument at around the same age, on a turn-of-the-century John Spencer & Co upright, with a beautiful wooden casing, cracked soundboard and buzzy strings. Despite the patient ministrations of a local piano tuner it was terminally out-of-tune. Almost a century of damp British weather and central heating had turned its sound permanently avant-garde. John Cage couldn’t have imagined a prepared piano as peculiar sounding as ours. But it had character that I got to know deeply. I learned to read music on it, I learned Bach and Beethoven and Bowie on it, I learned how to improvise and play by ear on it. (In no small part this was thanks to the endless patience of my family and our next-door neighbours whom I tortured through the walls with my playing.) I loved opening up the casing to look at how the mechanisms of hammers, dampers, strings, pedals, and levers worked. It fascinated me that it was a piece of furniture as well as a musical instrument, an object you could put a photo of grandma and a vase of flowers on top of, a thing both enormously impractical—you can’t carry a piano on the bus to rehearsal—and useful for home furnishing tasks it wasn’t designed for. To paraphrase the artist Mike Kelley, I got “more love hours than can ever be repaid” from that thing.
5. At best I am an average piano player, and because I don’t own a piano, I’ve dipped to a below-average standard. Yet I think about the instrument a great deal. I often visualize a keyboard when I listen to music—sometimes a music stave, but usually piano keys—trying to imagine where the notes are, how it’s constructed. This is a strange thing to say, but for me the arrangement of black and white keys is as much a fundamental form as a tree, a wheel or a sentence. I can’t imagine a world without it, in the same way that I cannot imagine my life outside the English language. If I were to take a psychedelic voyage into the inner reaches of my consciousness, I’d probably meet an ancient cosmic god shaped like a vast Steinway. When I play other instruments—the guitar or the clarinet—I find myself mentally translating what my fingers are doing on the fret board or tone holes to the piano keyboard. This probably does nothing for my guitar or clarinet skills, in the same way that English hobbles my French.
6. Before Nam Jun Paik became a pioneer of video art, he had a promising career as a classical pianist. In Amanda Kim’s new documentary about Paik, Moon is the Oldest TV, the young Paik is seen performing a complex piece by Arnold Schoenberg. After witnessing a concert by John Cage, he felt an increasing desire to tear down the Western classical music tradition. Later, he and other Fluxus artists would smash pianos, set fire to them, torture uprights by shoving them onto their backs. Potent gestures, if Franz Liszt and Jerry Lee Lewis hadn’t already beaten the avant-gardists to it with their own violent, pianopocalyptic performances.
As a child, many years before I heard of Fluxus, I was horrified to learn that piano smashing was a competitive sport in 1950s Britain. After the war, as the television and radio began to take over the home and the social space of the pub, people no longer had any use for the instrument. (As the piano began to vanish from the home, it disappeared from representation in visual art: I find it hard to think of many paintings or sculptures that depict the instrument after the 1960s.) The market for used instruments became non-existent, and so piano wrecking became a popular activity at local fairs, fetes and university rag weeks. It now seems to me quaint, childish. But it’s striking that documentation of Fluxus artists destroying pianos, and old film of people pulling them to bits at country fairs, look almost identical, yet they carry such different weights of intellectual and class value.
7. Here’s an interview with the American pianist John Browning, talking about physical technique. He was a protégé of Rosina Lhévinne, the famous Russian musician and teacher. In the interview, Browning—debonair, elegantly dressed—talks about the importance of a straight back, angling in to the keyboard a little, “rather than an arrogant attitude of [leaning] back.” He demonstrates how to practice playing octaves with books tucked between the arms, how to “bounce the thumbs” and keep them from getting “tight,” in his opinion the main cause of tendonitis.
8. I’ve never understood the appeal of the self-playing piano. The lights are on, but nobody’s home.
9. Like any instrument the piano demands coordination of the body and the intellect and makes use of the brain in your hands. When I’ve not played it for some time, I’m always suprised at how much muscle-memory I carry for certain pieces. There are compositions I learned aged fifteen that I can still summon—if shakily and with all the nimbleness of a three-legged dog climbing a mountain. I can enter into a state of mind when playing the piano that I can only compare to drawing or walking. It’s one in which I can shift between different levels of attention. There’s the task in hand: awareness of when a piece needs a bit more detail here, more definition needed there, looking ahead to where it might go next, making adjustments, chancing a new technique. And then there is another state. A memory might appear out of nowhere, something completely unrelated. Plans, fantasies, anxieties, and feelings bubble and churn. Deep thoughts sing to banal thoughts. I can find myself imagining who else the music might please and who might find something in it to criticise. I can lose myself in this state for hours. Eventually I’ll be interrupted by the need to pee, to eat something, my phone pinging, and the world is spared my plunking and clomping.
10. On a trip home last year, I ran into my old piano teacher. I did not know that she was originally from New York, and had left for England, ending up in the small town I grew up in. The reverse course to my own. One of my favourite pieces she taught me to play was ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner (1908). It was a play on a set of musical exercises, and dedicated to his daughter Claude-Emma, nicknamed Chouchou. For a long time I believed I had quite a good command of it—especially the fast runs that bookend it—until I finally heard a recording played by a professional and realised that I had only learned it at half-speed. It was like discovering I had been mispronouncing a word my whole life.
Debussy apparently told his publisher that ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ should be played early in the morning. Something to get the blood flowing. I doubt I could reach the breakneck early morning speed Debussy intended. I like my slow version, which sounds like it should be played late at night.
11. Browning notes that the Russian school of piano technique taught that the fleshy part of the fingers should be flat on the keys, rather than the hard, bony part of the finger at the tip. It produced “a slightly slower, less speedy attack on the key,” that made for a more melodious sound. This was how Thelonius Monk played too, but with completely different results. Looking at clips of him performing, his hand was even flatter against the keys, almost paddling them. Monk—also the subject of a new film, Rewind & Play, directed by Alain Gomis—had a forceful and percussive style, defined by space and deliberative gaps between phrases. His playing was like hearing someone think aloud, argue with the piano. Monk’s approach to harmony was incredibly inventive, using unusual tonal colours that sometimes clashed—notes slipping and clanging next to each other—and yet always at the service of the melody. He could add deep complexity to a simple tune in the right hand by making idiosyncratic harmonic choices in the left. But no matter how strange things got, there was always a groove to whatever he played: “make the drummer sound good” was one of his rules.
12. Guèbru described the piano as “a full instrument.” You can play a simple melody line, you can play chords, you can mix them together and act as both lead and accompanist. A piano can sound small or it can sound enormous. It can support a soloist, or blend into an orchestra. It’s also a percussion instrument. Because pianos are stupidly big, expensive, so heavy with history, they make great props for comedy. A lone piano on a stage can signal that you’re about to witness an act of virtuosity, or a heart-on-sleeve weepie. Six of them together creates a sound like no other. Its sound is ubiquitous: you can hear the piano in a church and on a house music track in a club, you can hear it in the corridors of a conservatoire, on a ringtone, imitated by a child’s toy.
13. Here’s Oscar Peterson giving Dick Cavett a lesson in jazz piano.
14. There’s a clip of Glenn Gould recording a Bach bourée—classic Gould, crisp articulation of notes, hunched and low at the keyboard, humming along to his own playing—in which you can see Gould stopping himself, asking for a new take, thinking through all the possibilities. “That is too boring, let’s try it again…,” or “Too crazy. Again.”
Someone—I cannot remember who, perhaps Monk, or maybe it was Liberace—said that when you play one note on the piano, you’re playing them all. Another one of Monk’s maxims was “a note can be a small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.” The piano is a capacious instrument, with such scope for invention and variation to keep you occupied for a long time. If I were to be stuck on a desert island, a piano would be my luxury, not writing tools. What I enjoy about Monk’s playing is that it constantly offers suggestions for how to put sound together, how to juxtapose odd flavours. He encourages the musician to ask themselves the question, “have you thought about doing it like this instead?” On Instagram, I like watching a niche category of video in which pianists demonstrate how to achieve certain kinds of chord voicings in jazz or pop music. It’s basic bread-and-butter stuff for first year music students, but for an amateur like me they represent possibility—“next time you’re at the piano, try this”—or simply being let into the secret of how to get a sound with a particular feel. I concede that animal videos are probably more entertaining.
15. In his book Rough Ideas, the concert pianist Stephen Hough writes about the increase in anxiety about playing wrong notes. “It’s partly the sanitized perfection of edited studio recordings […],” he writes. “We live in a world with straight edges, with spell checks, with on/off switches.” Hough describes a conductor once stopping a rehearsal to vent his frustration at the violins: “‘I wish some of you would play out of tune for once. Everything’s so tentative, so cautious. Let go, for heaven’s sake!’” Hough gives the example of Alfred Cortot as a performer who didn’t seem too worried about making mistakes, yet “he still soared higher than most.” I remember once seeing Philip Glass play a selection of his own solo piano pieces. He fumbled a few notes, and his playing seemed a fraction rough to my ears, but it gave an emotional edge to the performance that a recording would have killed.
16. Hough talks about people’s fascination with difficulty, with the pieces that turn his hands into a blur on the keyboard, blizzards of notes flying everywhere. He points out that the flashy stuff is easier than it looks, but something soft and slow can be harder to get right. It reminds me of a passage in the novel Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys, in which the narrator is fired from a ghost-writing job for using words that are too short. “Don’t you know any long words, and if you do, would you please use them?” […] “Long words. Chairoscuro? Translucent? … I bet he’d like cataclysmal action and centrifugal flux […]”
I love the way The Stooges use just one high-pitched repeating piano note on ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’—it’s dumb, like a menacing sleigh bell, yet it propels the song along. Similarly, the insistent two-note piano riff on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ gives the track swagger. The piano solo on Isaac Hayes’ ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’ is long, sparse and barely moves at all, but it packs a punch. (Round about the seven-minute point you can hear the little clustered squibs that Public Enemy sampled for ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.’) Duval Timothy, whose music I enjoy, is not a flashy pianist. His songs often have the quality of sketches, but his approach results in something hypnotic and intimate, a little like observing someone lost in thought in the middle of the afternoon.
17. You can detune and retune a piano according to your own system. You can reach into its guts and pluck, hit or stroke its strings. You can wedge objects inside it or stick things onto the hammers that will mess with the action of the keys and alter its timbre. All of which is more or less quite interesting, but it seems histrionic when you consider how many ways there are to articulate just one single note.
18. Speaking of simplicity: ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ by the late, great Ryuichi Sakamoto, who passed away last week, a couple of days after Guèbru.
19. Some of my favourite musicians are technically bog-standard pianists, but it’s what they do with the instrument that’s powerful. Take, for example, this clip of Robert Wyatt playing his ‘Sea Song’ on French television in 1975. He’s solo at the piano, a full-size grand on a vast, empty soundstage, a couple of sad looking party balloons lolling on the floor next to him. Wyatt plays a thick procession of chords all at the same, steady pace. But he is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. He can’t operate the instrument’s pedals, which would be used to sustain and blend the notes. Rather than sounding clunky and plain, as it might do without the helpful gloss of the pedals, the naked and vulnerable sentiment of the song is enhanced.
20. Nina Simone originally aspired to be a classical pianist, but her life and circumstances led her into jazz. She was an admirer of Bach, and would take her songs on flights of baroque-style invention. The clip above is from the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1987. “I have suffered,” she says, “but there’s a Bösendorfer here, so we’ll see what happens.” She starts playing ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me.’ You can hear her foot tapping along. (Another Monk-ism: “pat your foot and sing the melody in your head when you play.”) At first her playing sounds crisp but firmly in the jazz idiom, as if she may simply turn out a straightforward rendition of the song. Then she she starts to extemporize, augmenting the song’s 20th century swing with 17th century stylings.
She begins to sing, a little tentatively, as if to herself rather than the audience. After the first round of lyrics, her hands begin to fly. You can see her thinking, planning where to take the song next. Yet there is also such assurance in her invention. She knows exactly how the baroque form should go, how counterpoint works; moves which are by this stage in her life completely embodied her hands. (That old muscle memory again.) Here and there a note slips, but the mistakes give the performance an exhilarating quality. It starts to become like watching someone playing on a cliff edge, on the brink of losing control. Just past the five-minute mark she moves her head to the mic as if to sing, getting part of a word out, but she decides against it—“no,” you can hear her say—and she pulls the energy right back. She tamps down the volume, lets air into her scales and runs. Then she starts to sing again, and the playing takes off. Her hands wail on the keys. Her fingers drown out her voice. It’s triumphant and yet almost anguished too, as if the whole song has become about the piano itself, her ‘baby,’ a reckoning with all that it has brought her.
‘A full instrument,’ no question.
—I am keen to see Kelly Reichardt’s new film, Showing Up: the latest stage in my elusive quest to find a film about artists that actually captures what being an artist is like.
—If you can find it, and you’re a fan of the British writer Alan Garner, seek out the 1979 ‘Play for Today’ adapation of his novel Red Shift. Like many of Garner’s books, it’s about the ways in which history collides with the present, a kind of literary quantum physics in which multiple time periods co-exist in the same narrative frame.
—The new novel by Michael Bracewell, Unfinished Business, came out last month. It’s his first work of fiction in over 20 years, picking up with the lives of characters he introduced his readers to in 1992 with The Conclave; then upwardly mobile, aspirational products of Thatcher’s Britain, now at vastly different stations in life. It’s funny and tragic, each sentence a pithy distillation of British culture and the run-down condition of nostalgia: “What do you do when you notice the shadows begin to lengthen on the lawn?” (I wrote about his last book, Souvenir—a beautiful, oblique memoir of 1980s London—for Frieze in 2021.)
—‘Brussels Pout’ is Ian Penman’s new essay on Charles Baudelaire for the London Review of Books: “seedy and prematurely middle-aged, sparse hair brushed forward, a dandy with water damage.” Penman also has a new book out on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as reviewed by Christine Smallwood last week in 4Columns. And have you read Smallwood’s novel The Life of the Mind? You should.