Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Imagine the Possibilities of a New Sound, Or a Sound So Old It’s Forgotten

The other day, I came across an article about a collection of centuries-old pianos in a small town in Massachusetts. The bulk of the article examined the differences between the sounds of particular famous pieces of classical music on different brands of piano. The samples of music blew me away, so radically strange they were to my ears.

The pianos that are used universally in classical concerts and records today are contemporary Steinways. This is the instrument on which I’ve always heard Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” for example. But hearing it played on a 200-year-old Katholnig, a brand of piano that Ludwig van himself would have composed upon was mind-blowing. The sustain on the notes was just short enough not to overpower the subsequent notes, but created a much more dreamlike sound. The articles included examples of Brahms played on a Streicher and Debussy on an Erard, and the differences between these rare, out of production pianos and the mainstream Steinways was incredible. It makes one wonder why such variety of piano production, and therefore such variety of sound production, has disappeared from classical music today.

It made the article’s author Jan Swafford wonder, and she told a very nice little just-so story about why. In her interview with Michael Frederick, the owner of the piano collection in Massachusetts, he continually mentioned the standardization of piano production in the contemporary classical music world. All pianos were made to sound the same, and there was no longer any variation of piano products. Swafford speculated that the reason for this was because of the social role of recording technologies. Now that recordings exist, she said, people go to concerts to hear the music played exactly as it would be heard on the recordings. In order to get a perfect reproduction, one would have to make sure that every concert piano would sounds the same.

But as soon as I thought about how well this story applied to any other genre of music – jazz, rock, hip hop – I realized that recording alone could not be at fault for the deadening of variety in classical music. We music fans get the recordings, listening to them attentively, sometimes obsessively. But when we go to live shows, we’re bored when the songs are played exactly as on the records. We want to hear variations, improvizations, guest rappers, a random solo where we least expect it. And the proliferation of brands of guitar, each with their own eccentricities, is another sign of the embrace of this variety, of the possibility of new sound. Just compare the same stretch of music played on a Rickenbacker, a Telecaster, a Les Paul, and a B. C. Rich.

Classical music has come to be dominated by a feature of musical appreciation that modern forms largely, and thankfully, lack: obsessively insular reverence to the point of stagnation. Try to throw some improvization into a performance of “Appassionata,” a Beethoven piano piece with an ending cacaphony so wild that it foreshadows the guitar solos of Kerry King or Hendrix. You’ll never get away with it in front of a crowd of classical music fans. Classical music fans are centred on the worship of their godly figures who are long dead.

A performance of classical music isn’t meant to have the performer physically in front of you play a piece according to her own creative impulses. She’s meant to be a channeller of the idols. There are similar impulses in folk music too, but there’s still room for creativity in that genre. That’s why classical music has been standardized and had the life sucked out of it. And it’s been such a successful procedure that we don’t even know what we’re missing anymore until the owner of an antique piano museum in Massachusetts brings someone in to play us some Beethoven.

1 comment:

B. said...

I have a great fondness for that exhibit; when I was a kid (and wanted desperately to be Glenn Gould) a similar one was touring the continent, and showed up in southern Alberta for a couple of months, where it lived in an isolated wing of the museum. They would let you play the more resilient of the pianos if you wanted to (and I did).

But you haven't given a completely fair characterization of recordings and performances, and I have a couple of little counterexamples to offer:

J. and I went to a concert in January where the ESO performed Beethoven's piano concerto no. 2. The conductor (who is also their pianist) didn't like one cadenza, so he switched it out for a different one that he had written himself. It was excellent! even though I am a philistine who had never heard a recording of the piece before and didn't know the difference. It may have been more interesting if I had had the original floating around in my memory to compare it to, but it was already awfully interesting just to know that there had been a significant revision.

Mozart wrote piano pieces for an earlier version of the pianos we've got now, with a smaller range and a quieter sound and different tone quality in different registers. (By the time you get to Beethoven, the range has widened and the tone has evened out a little; the differences between how a Steinway grand sounds and feels and how an instrument from Mozart's lifetime sounds are really, really marked, and easy to hear.) Some recordings feature soloists who made an effort to duplicate that sound, and others don't, so they can differ pretty significantly. One recording I have enjoyed is one of the piano concerto no. 23 on an actual old fortepiano, by Robert Levin. (It involves many embellishments and new cadenzas, too, for good measure.)

If you're interested in listening to period recordings, I recommend checking out some Academy of Ancient Music stuff; they recorded all of Beethoven's symphonies and piano concerti with period instruments, and it's really neat to listen to one of those recordings and then a "standard" recording (w/Steinway grand) back to back.

There is still hope for interesting differences and not everywhere is standardized, so take heart! is all I am saying.