The Piano: More Than Black and White

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

It feels like pianos are everywhere again. The media was all over the 150th Anniversary of Steinway, which also happened to be concurrent with the 175th anniversary of Bösendorfer and the opening of their first-ever American office. Last month, a 21-piano concert marathon reverberated throughout the World Financial Center in New York City, echoing Gottschalk’s Monster Concerts, where 10 or more pianists created heavy metal a century before the advent of the Marshall Stack, and the now 50-year-old cult classic, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, Dr. Seuss’s only-ever non-animated film in which a boy imagines his over zealous piano teacher trying to take over the world with a gigantic piano.

We’ve all been told that once upon a time there was a piano in the home of almost every family of moderate means. Harboring a role somewhere between an objet de culture, a home entertainment system, and a piece of furniture, the piano was touted as a status symbol that bettered people’s lives and connected owners of pianos to a wide world of communication long before the advent of radio, television, Nintendo, and the Internet.

But it’s difficult to ignore the problems with this impersonal machine spawn from the factories of the Industrial Revolution. With our hindsight and an advocacy for the broadest spectrum of musical possibilities, when the piano evangelists claim that this one instrument makes an entire orchestra possible at your fingertips, we cry foul. Giving the piano such a central and pre-eminent role seems stifling. Why not a saxophone in every home or even Harry Partch’s Cloud Chamber Bowls? They’re prettier than most instruments… And there are tons of things a piano can’t replicate with its quick decay and straight-jacketed tuning of 12-tone equal temperament, that is, if you’re lucky enough for the piano to be in tune!

That said, I confess that the piano is my personal instrument of choice. An imperfect upright Baldwin piano has been with me since I was in Junior High School. Hoisted in and out of windows more than my fear-of-heights anxiety can bear, it has weathered every storm of my adult life and is still my most prized possession. It’s not the greatest piano, yet it continues to be one of the most valuable tools, whether I’m working out a musical idea of my own or trying to figure out what someone else’s music is about.

And that’s because the piano has been at the forefront of just about every musical revolution of the past century and earlier, and continues to be a source of inspiration for many people today. Whether it’s serialism, minimalism, post-minimalism, bebop, free jazz, neo-romanticism, indeterminacy, you name it, the piano was probably there first. Even microtonal music…

When I first became fascinated with the possibilities of microtonality, I lamented that my chosen instrument was incapable of transmitting these ideas. Little did I know at the time that most of the early microtonal pioneers of late 19th century and early 20th century music were involved with tuning pianos a quartertone apart, building special quartertone pianos, retuning grand pianos to an incomplete 96-tone scale, etc. And then I heard La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano for the first time.

This was and continues to be one of the great revelations of my musical life. Here was a work created on a piano that had been retuned to a unique just intonation scale involving intervals never before used in the history of music. A sprawling epic lasting more than five hours in performance that was all at once minimalist (the movement Young is acknowledged to have founded) and maximalist (the duration, the incredible virtuosity), highly structured yet involving improvisation, a direct response to music of non-Western cultures as well as vernacular Western styles yet completely an heir to the great piano music tradition of Western classical music, unabashedly romantic yet completely modern, a work that was initially created almost 40 years ago but which continues to evolve like life itself… And in what has completely become the age of the soundbyte and A.D.D., it is a refreshing portal into another way of perceiving time.

For years after its initial creation, The Well-Tuned Piano could only be heard in rare performances and pre-recorded presentations. Then a 5-disc release of a 5 hour 1 minute and 49 second performance from 1981 appeared on Gramavision in the late 1980s, which I grabbed up on LPs at Tower Records the day it was released but which is now sadly long out-of-print. But this year a DVD has been released of a more recent and even longer performance of The Well-Tuned Piano which, thanks to the DVD format, also captures The Magenta Lights of Marian Zazeela, an otherworldly environment in which The Well-Tuned Piano is always presented in concert performances, complementing it and enriching it beyond any conventional concert experience into a “capital E” Experience.

For years I have wanted to talk to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela about The Well-Tuned Piano in The Magenta Lights and its relationship to the past, present and future of Western and non-Western music history, art history, philosophy, time and the human condition. This past August it finally happened on an extraordinarily hot summer evening. Yet for what ultimately turned out to be a 8-1/2 hour visit, more than 4 hours of which we recorded for NewMusicBox, the temperature of the room, chronological time, the outside world in fact, was suspended as La Monte and Marian explained their pioneering artistic legacy and how the piano became an integral part of it.

How to complement this epic discussion? We asked “Blue” Gene Tyranny, another very important American piano pioneer to explain how the piano has been so central to American music making from the very beginning and he responded with the longest HyperHistory we have ever featured on this site. Similarly, we thought it would be instructive to get comments from pianists who actively play new American music about their reasons for choosing the pieces they play: 46 pianists responded! We were gunning for 88 (for obvious reasons) and unfortunately missed the mark, but considering that there are 27 inner pages to the discussion with La Monte and Marian and a total of 25 pages to Blue’s HyperHistory, there are actually a total of 140 pages herein devoted to the piano which is considerably more than the total number of keys on an extended-ranged Bösendorfer! And since there is always an indeterminate amount of extra material to read in the comments posted to our Forum, we hope you’ll want to add enough commentary to match the number of keys on a three-keyboard quarter-tone piano at least!

Strangely, after finishing this gargantuan issue about the piano, it seems like there’s still so much more to say. Why has the piano played such a crucial role in our musical history? Most pianists, unlike other instrumental soloists, don’t even play their own instruments when they perform in concert! How is it that an impersonal factory-made machine is capable of provoking some of the most personal musical statements ever made? Maybe that’s why, imperfect though it is, I’m so attached to that Baldwin upright. It’s personal.