88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music



Photo By Chris Harris

The music of another time often reveals the most intimate language of the people then, the images and emotions that they truly considered to be real and valued. To experience their interior world, the sound of the music is one of the quickest triggers to evoke sensations, deep proto-memories that seem to create a shared pathway of understandings from their time to ours – a more effective link than perhaps most written histories can provide. Just hearing the sound immediately builds this bridge across time, the way that a scent may suddenly bring back a feeling from your childhood, or upon touching someone’s hand you may suddenly realize that you love them.

The most innovative and revolutionary musical thoughts in America have often first announced themselves in works for the piano: the strange scenes in the 18th-century battle pieces; the exciting new virtuosity and experimental Romantic harmonies of Benjamin Carr and others; the first African-American syncopations from Francis “Frank” Johnson’s band entering a greater public’s consciousness in the 1820s, the totally unique and wildly imaginative creations of the “Beethoven of Kentucky” (Anthony Philip Heinrich) in the 1830s and 1840s; the multicultural music of Gottschalk; “Blind” Tom Bethune’s extraordinary ability to imitate natural sounds and immediately recall over 7000 works at the keyboard; America’s response to German romanticism; the breakthrough of all kinds of regional styles; the rise of ragtime and honky-tonk in the late 19th century; the piano’s crucial role in the first film soundtracks; the profoundly visionary keyboard creations of Ives and Griffes; and the inside-the-piano experiments of Henry Cowell, and later, John Cage; the birth of jazz and the emergence of the “swing” feeling from Jelly Roll Morton and the pianists of the 1920s; the “bad boys” and “bad girl” of music with their dissonance intended to wake up the world for better or worse to a new century; the mutual interchange of pop and concert styles; bebop, indeterminacy, hyper-complexity; minimalism and microtonality; the vast range of spontaneous playing; the continuing evolution of improvised styles; music that incorporates recent technologies and music that avoids them; music that eludes easy definition; and more

And, even more than that connection established through the appreciation of particular “works” from composers, pianists, and composer-performers, there is a time bridge created by the intimate kinesthetic experience of approaching the keyboard for the first time, an experience shared by untold millions over the centuries. At first there is the absolute surprise of pushing down a key and producing a sound. That action spontaneously unites the senses of touch, vision, and hearing. Only a heartbeat later, you have the expectation that repeating the same action will evoke similar results, and at some point an urge arises to use the keyboard as a medium to imitate other sounds you have experienced or imagined.

From that time on, touch, envisioning, and sounds in themselves vie for the newly-born pianist’s attention—that is the subject highlighted in this brief history of American piano music and demonstrated through certain innovative compositions and performers who brought into existence uniquely different approaches to creating music on the keyboard.

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