Down With the Piano!!!!!!

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Ralph
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Down With the Piano!!!!!!

Post by Ralph » Thu Nov 17, 2005 7:36 am

Lance will love this article.

From newmusicbox.org:

Ban The Piano! A 21st-Century Composition Manifesto
By ByronAu Yong
Published: November 16, 2005

As a Chinese-American composer who writes from the margins, I know that I must abolish the central love of my youth—the piano—and find other tools to survive in a new music world where noise and silence excite me as much as melody and rhythm.

The piano was my first love. I would play for hours, alternating between the black and white keys. Swaying on the bench, I found myself in 17th-century Leipzig with Bach, 18th-century Salzburg with Mozart, and 19th-century Warsaw with Chopin. With these masters, I traveled through time to exotic European cities, but I was really alone and alone I was controlled.

My first love led to my disintegration. I played and played, visiting homes where the piano had become a table for overgrown plants. I played and played and found myself a bit too intimate with a parlor instrument at three o'clock in the morning. I played and played until certain keys stuck and the notes stopped sounding. I had fallen in love with an antiquated machine; an old-fashioned coffin that I desperately tried to warm with the soft fur of music. I was no longer integral to society. I had become engaged in necrophilia with an inanimate relic.

Mistaken as a democratic instrument for its ease of playing, the piano has established a mode of experiencing sound that has led to the downfall of western music. Fast fingers, such as Liberace's with added diamonds for emphasis, delight the eyes and ears. Children and adults plunk keys to receive instant aural gratification. Something so beguiling and easy must have a price.

The fixed tuning of the piano has bound western musicians to a limited set of pitches. Instruments that are closer to the body, such as the flute or violin, must conform to these pitches. An orchestra tunes to the oboe, but if a piano is involved then the instruments tune to the piano. Western-trained singers learn melodies from a keyboard rather than from other singers. Vertical harmony developed because the piano, tuned in equal temperament, facilitated the promulgation of a tonic-dominant hierarchy that controls the function of western music and directs the commercial ears of the masses.

Moreover, the piano and its offspring, the electronic keyboard, have become icons of affluence around the world. When I was teaching a music workshop in Malaysia, the participants, seasoned drummers, felt that I was a true musician because I played the piano. They denigrated themselves because they were too poor to own one. Only the wealthy can afford them. This is especially true in formerly colonized ports around the world. Those with money send their children to study piano as a way to discipline the body and buy into the bourgeoisie.
name
At the piano, age eight
Courtesy of Byron Au Yong

As an instrument of class, the piano signifies dominance. This is symbolized on the keyboard by ebony-black keys that are separate and hover tentatively behind ivory-white keys, which side-by-side form a phalanx. When the piano was in its infancy, the keys were various color combinations, but now the black keys are always a pentatonic scale. "I'm playing Chinese!" I used to exclaim as an eight-year-old, running my fingers along the black keys. The momentary look of horror on my mom's face receded when the potential benefit of having a classical musician for a son began to outweigh the cartoonish distillation of Chinese music into five pitches. For hours, I commanded the interaction of those keys, as other boys command toy soldiers. In the process, I became a brainwashed despot sitting by myself in a practice room in a hall filled with practice rooms of other musicians sitting by themselves.

Glenn Gould tried to escape by humming beyond the regulated pitches. Stockhausen held the damper pedal down until the overtone-clouded harmonies provided a momentary release. John Cage threw screws and bolts into the guts of the beast. George Maciunas had Nam June Paik hammer nails into every key of the piano until the instrument was destroyed. Sonic Youth revived the Maciunas Piano Piece #13, in 1999, to no avail. The shiny-black-trophy-hearse piano lives on in the concert hall heart of every music school.

For composers, the piano is deadly. Music is about voices within bodies that sing about the human condition. The piano has taken vocalists away from learning how to sing within an oral tradition. The piano has taken bodies and forced them to sit. The piano has taken its role as a tool of music and become a tool for dictators. For music to regain its agency and creativity, composers must unchain themselves from the piano and reintegrate the two primary building blocks of composing music: drum and voice.

Drumming energizes the body from the outside with hands or feet that produce percussive beats that propel dramatic action. Singing arises from the inside of the body and soars towards the heavens. Together, drumming and vocalizing contain seeds that when thrown into cultural cracks grow into the intertwining narratives of music.

While the piano can play a melody over a rhythmic pattern, the results fall into gestures that are constrained by tuning and history. The initial impulse to compose must come from the infinite complexities of drumming and vocalizing rather than from the limited mechanics of the piano. Later, piano may be added as an instrument of the music, but never before—otherwise the music becomes an instrument of the piano.

It is easy to begin a new work by sitting at a keyboard and playing and playing and playing. While this machine easily produces sound, beware; once it dictates the works being created, then the essence and potential of imagination in musical storytelling is lost. As an artist who lives on the edges, I will always reify the piano, but as a composer I realize that drumming and vocalizing are the essential tools of my craft.

***

Byron Au Yong was born into an immigrant family who raised him on American musical theatre, Chinese sacred ceremonies, and big budget action flicks. His physical and spatial drum and voice-inspired works have been performed in Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. He is composing a piano concerto; away from the piano, of course.
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Teresa B
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Post by Teresa B » Thu Nov 17, 2005 8:18 am

Ban the piano?? :shock: NNNNOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!

Interesting and eloquent essay. And surely no one would wish to limit the author's creativity to the keyboard's constraint.

But how about this:

The piano has a far broader range than the human voice, albeit within its well-tempered tuning (hey, quantum theory dictates that electrons can only "jump" in rigid energy levels--nothing in between).

The unique action in which the tone dies off as it is played presents challenges as well as opportunites to exploit this quality.

Obviously the drum can be a sort of "primal" stimulus to human creativity. But it's limited to rhythm. Piano has all these capabilities--rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, tone color (in good hands)--!

I would prefer to view the piano as an amazing intrument, but certainly not as a limiting factor.

All the best, Teresa
"We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." ~ The Cheshire Cat

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aurora
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Post by aurora » Thu Nov 17, 2005 8:42 am

"Ban the piano?? :shock: "

Heh-heh. I know some string players would who agree..... heartily

Personally, I have a theory that they should make a piano especially for chamber music. It would be exactly like a regular piano.... except the lid would be nailed shut.

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Post by Lance » Thu Nov 17, 2005 10:51 am

A most interesting article, for sure. When the Italian master Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) came forth with the first instrument that eventually became today's piano (with many refinements, of course), music really took off! From Bach, Mozart and everyone in between, and through the Romantic period and right on up to today, the piano is THE instrument of choice, as it has been by some of the greatest minds in the world of music. It may have become the "standardized" instrument—like it or not—but there has to be some instrument (it seems to me) from which to work and sample musical ideas, which cannot be done with, say, the tonette! Most great symphonic works are an outgrowth of ideas, which became Beethoven's and Schumann's symphonies. Anyone who wants to go beyond that may certainly do so; they can even forget the piano entirely and compose at will with nary a thought to the piano. Me? I'll take the piano any day, and all the wonderful (and maybe not so wonderful) music that it has inspired.
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When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
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Post by Donald Isler » Thu Nov 17, 2005 11:02 am

I agree with Lance and Teresa.

Any mode of producing music, whether the human voice, or drumming, or any other instrument has limitations in range, pitch and timbre. These limitations are also challenges. For example, the piano is officially (though I hate to admit it!) an instrument where the sound is produced by strings being struck. Yet, in the hands of a Cherkassky, for example, it can produce a beautiful, and very expressive melody.

This writer should create his own music any way he wants, but I don't think he'll influence us pianophiles very much!
Donald Isler

jbuck919
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Post by jbuck919 » Thu Nov 17, 2005 11:32 am

Not bad for someone writing in the 20th century.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

herman
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Re: Down With the Piano!!!!!!

Post by herman » Thu Nov 17, 2005 12:04 pm

Interesting several people like the writing so much. Sentences like "I would play for hours, alternating between the black and white keys," make me squirm. Does it mean he first plays on the white keys for an hour, and then moves on to the black ones? Or did he just want to write cute? Nor do I quite see how "noise and silence" are alternatives to "melody and rhythm" - and other sophomorisms.

12tone
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Post by 12tone » Thu Nov 17, 2005 12:31 pm

That essay is nothing more than yet another 'I'm so modernist' yap to add to the rest.

Drums and vocals? Drums can't do much but keep rhythm. Voice? Well he has a point there. Voice is good any way you put it. But I think the piano is a great tool to, like what Lance said, sample ideas. It really is a semi-perfect (would you go that extra step and say 'perfect'?) instrument.

It's just like our modernists today to say something 'so edgy' to get the attention they don't deserve.

And it's just like modernists to say something that rebels against something already founded; something people in the past knew and enjoyed. It begins with Tal and ends with Ent; a key feature most modernists ignore.


Way to go Lance!

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Re: Down With the Piano!!!!!!

Post by jbuck919 » Thu Nov 17, 2005 12:35 pm

herman wrote:Interesting several people like the writing so much.
I hope it was understood that my post was sarcastic.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Ralph
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Post by Ralph » Thu Nov 17, 2005 2:11 pm

I agree with Lance, Teresa and Don. :)
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Cyril Ignatius
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Post by Cyril Ignatius » Thu Nov 17, 2005 2:38 pm

Way to go Lance and 12tone!

My instrument is the harmonica. I am a composer and performer of short light classical pieces for the harmonica - and I think the harmonica (a good quality chromatic) is truly marlelous instrument. But this in no way stops me from constantly seeking piano music to listen to. I can't play piano myself, but I admire those who can. In my CD collection, beyond my symphonic holdings, the piano is far and away the instrument I have the most recordings of and listen to the most, wether as solo or concerto.

It would be hard for me to ever really say which instrument is most supreme, Violin? Cello? maybe voice? But the piano really is very central, and rightfully so. It seems to have been a major vehicle for the masters of music in bringing about many of the great musical developments. We can see even a great symphonist like Bruckner who wrote little for piano or other solo instrument, used the piano (a Bosendorfer in fact) in constructing his monumental symphonies.

Cyril Ignatius
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herman
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Re: Down With the Piano!!!!!!

Post by herman » Thu Nov 17, 2005 3:48 pm

jbuck919 wrote:
herman wrote:Interesting several people like the writing so much.
I hope it was understood that my post was sarcastic.
I hadn't understood, but I guess the "not bad for someone writing in the 20th century" was a dead giveaway, this being the 21st C, alas.

So we agree!

Brendan

Post by Brendan » Thu Nov 17, 2005 5:31 pm

Plenty of early music written before the piano was invented to explore. I think the lack of well-tempered scales and natural harmonics (no perfect fifth in equal tempering) adds to the quality of "otherness" I so enjoy.

jbuck919
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Post by jbuck919 » Thu Nov 17, 2005 6:01 pm

Brendan wrote:Plenty of early music written before the piano was invented to explore. I think the lack of well-tempered scales and natural harmonics (no perfect fifth in equal tempering) adds to the quality of "otherness" I so enjoy.
Forgive me, but "otherness," as in from another planet? Because that is exactly what non-equal music sounds like if it is in an off key. I find the notion that the weird relations we get in instruments of fixed pitch such as the harpsichord and organ can be considered nothing but bizarre and required reform long before the time of J.S. Bach, who famously tried out new organs in odd (to us) tunings common at the time by throwing off a fugue in a flat key to embarrass the builder with the wolf.

I hate to say this, but most people who favor unequal temperament are affecting an affinity for fine distinctions that have no musical significance compared to the overriding consideration of being able to play in tune in every key. Bach wrote the 48 precisely to show that it is nonsense to place potentially fatal tuning traditions over the expressive possibilities of having everything in tune, however minutely off, and sounding quite wonderful. If it was good enough for Bach's ear, it should be good enoug for us, and the rest is fetish.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Brendan

Post by Brendan » Thu Nov 17, 2005 7:35 pm

And after the Well-Tempered Clavier Bach never wrote another well-tempered piece. What's good for Bach's ear and mind . . .

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Post by Wallingford » Sat Nov 19, 2005 6:47 pm

"Down With The Piano"? Sounds like Schoenberg's & Boulez's motto.
Good music is that which falls upon the ear with ease, and quits the memory with difficulty.
--Sir Thomas Beecham

Wallingford
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Post by Wallingford » Sat Nov 19, 2005 7:07 pm

......or, rather, Down With PIANISTS.
Good music is that which falls upon the ear with ease, and quits the memory with difficulty.
--Sir Thomas Beecham

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Post by Donald Isler » Sun Nov 20, 2005 12:00 am

Wallingford wrote:

"or, rather, Down With PIANISTS."

WHAT???????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Donald Isler

12tone
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Post by 12tone » Sun Nov 20, 2005 12:11 am

Wallingford wrote:......or, rather, Down With PIANISTS.
So what will the existing pianists have to do to make a living? Learn the flute?

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Post by Lance » Sun Nov 20, 2005 1:25 am

12tone wrote:
Wallingford wrote:......or, rather, Down With PIANISTS.
So what will the existing pianists have to do to make a living? Learn the flute?
If they do, they will always have their same instrument with them. At least that is a plus! And if the flute is cumbersome, there's always the piccolo! :D
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rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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pizza
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Post by pizza » Sun Nov 20, 2005 11:41 am

It should be noted that works have been written for percussion ensembles and they display harmony, timbre and melody as well as rhythm. Check out works by Antheil, Cage, Caturla, Cowell, Roldan and Varese, to name just a few composers who wrote in that genre.

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Post by Teresa B » Sun Nov 20, 2005 2:49 pm

And Bobby McFerrin by himself can manage to sound like a combo of all sorts of things with his voice and one hand beating on his chest!

But still, one guy with a bongo does not a percussion ensemble make, but a piano alone can suffice. :)

All the best, Teresa
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Wallingford
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Post by Wallingford » Sun Nov 20, 2005 4:14 pm

Donald Isler wrote:Wallingford wrote:

"or, rather, Down With PIANISTS."

WHAT???????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
:oops: Ahem......folks, let me CLARIFY. I wasn't speaking of all of you pianists (who are one of my kind, to begin with); I meant it as an addendum to my previous post, just above that: I suggested "Down With Pianists" was SCHOENBERG's & BOULEZ's edict!!! :wink:
Good music is that which falls upon the ear with ease, and quits the memory with difficulty.
--Sir Thomas Beecham

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