Why the piano sounds so old and what we can do about it.

With his Open Ear debut coming up on Saturday 30 June, Joseph Havlat explores the problems with contemporary music for solo piano, and how he’s trying to solve them.

FJoseph Havlator this Saturday’s Open Ear concert, as for every concert I programme, I’ve experienced the inevitable dilemma of choosing what to play. If I’m perfectly honest, I find I struggle to really enjoy much of the new music written for solo piano in the past twenty or so years.
But why is that? It shouldn’t be this way, but perhaps when it comes down to it, the piano is just old-fashioned. It’s been weighed down by popularity in solo performance. In its centuries-long lifespan it’s accumulated a massive repertoire, including many true masterpieces. It’s so associated with works of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, that the instrument itself just sounds, well, kind of old.

Add to that the fact that composers have squeezed just about every possible technical extreme out of us pianists, and I think that there isn’t much I would want to present in a programme of contemporary music for solo piano. What’s lacking is a variety in sound. With a stringed or wind instrument there’s a diverse range of timbre and dynamic control available. Meanwhile, we pianists must find the nuance in just a few parameters of finely-controlled attack and duration, and the restrictions on trying to do that are clear.

So, what to do? Well, adding an ensemble to the mix provides more opportunities for a different sonic experience, and for me, that’s probably where the instrument’s future chiefly resides. It’s way more exciting to perform today’s music in an ensemble, because you have a greatly improved range sound with which to work. Maybe in the future, if the constraints of construction permit, we could have a piano that allows for greater freedom to use the inside of the instrument, for this is surely an area that still has untapped potential. A good start would be to have dampers that are black and white, so you can see which string is which when manipulating the strings directly. Greater access to every string would open up an entirely new instrumental timbre to be utilised (Barenboim at least got this bit right with his bespoke, straight-stringed piano). And I’ve always wanted a ‘reverse sostenuto’ pedal, where you can isolate notes to be dampened. All a pipe dream of course, but I look forward to the day when the inside of the piano is within the bounds of standard piano technique.

So for the Open Ear concert on Saturday, (in lieu of my own Barenboim-esque custom instrument), I’ve opted for multiple instruments including a celesta and a toy piano alongside the standard concert grand. This will let me turn what would otherwise be a solo performance into pseudo chamber music, albeit with just one person playing every instrument. The toy piano is exactly that – a small piano, originally designed for use by children (as you can imagine its great fun!). And over the past 50 years, it has become more of a concert instrument, with works written for it by Cage, Crumb and Kagel. The toy piano has a more rudimentary mechanism than that of a proper piano: hammers hit small metal plates or rods to produce a twangy, dissonant sound. The pitch of the notes is often approximate and not finely tuned, so playing it alongside a grand piano makes for a lovely, disharmonious combination. The celesta is a frequent orchestral instrument in more modern works, but rarely sees use in solo situations so I thought I’d give it some love. It provides a more attractive tinkle to counter the coarseness of a toy piano, so with all three instruments I have plenty of colours to play with.

Suite for Toy Piano by John Cage


The works I’m playing link not only the instruments, but with each other, through a common theme of simplicity. Seán Clancy’s Four Pieces of Music Lasting Thirty Seconds Each is, unsurprisingly, a set of four brief movements for toy piano. Clancy writes of the influence of Solomon LeWitt on his compositions, believing him to be one of the few artists who marries concept and object succCaixaForum Barcelona July 2014 06 webessfully, resulting in work that is both intellectually stimulating and aesthetically beautiful. This piece could be seen as relating to one of LeWitt’s wall paintings (pictured right), in its observance of a process which hopefully results in something beautiful. Written in memory of musicologist Bob Gilmore who passed away during the writing of the piece, the music is gracefully ephemeral and delicate, with never more than two lines present at a time. But the grace is short lived, and the music approaches a fleeting moment of roughness in the fourth movement, from which it never recovers.

William Marsey’s Dutch Interior Subjects considers how one listens to music. The name comes from an exhibition guide found in a second-hand store, with the movement titles from individual paintings contained within. These are all domestic scenes painted in the 1500s and 1600s; people cooking, at home getting ready for social events, drinking with friends. This domesticity reflects an approach to composition in which the music is written not for an audience in concert, but rather for a solitary listener who chooses to listen. It’s music that accommodates pausing, that can be listened in shuffle. It doesn’t illicit a group or agreed response, or to try to shock or prod, but invites a listener in, revealing hidden depths with multiple listens, unravelling and revealing itself under scrutiny. I find a lot of serenity in the mundane qualities of the piece. To be sure, there’s beauty to be found on the  surface, but more to be found upon a repeat delve into its Bachian counterpoint. They will be presented in a version for multiple keyboards, utilising the celesta, toy piano and grand piano in various combinations.

So that’s one solution to the piano’s old sound, but it can’t be the only one, and I’m sure there’s many more to be discovered.


Hear Joseph Havlat explore the timbres of the piano, toy piano and celesta on Sunday 30 June in BBC Radio 3 Open Ear, also featuring The Hermes Experiment, Apartment House, and Séverine Ballon.
Click here to find out more and book tickets