Le Piano Démécanisé, article

The secret automaton.

The mechanics between piano keys and strings act as a buffer between the pianist and sound. The way the sounds are to be produced has been determined beforehand. It is sound technique protocol that the pianist, from the beginning of his study, learns to conform; any form of sound adventure is crippled. This turns the pianist into a nostalgic character, doomed to think in terms of, and play according to, ancient rules. The black and white geography of the keys encorsets him in a hierarchical system of notes. The pianist is a rigid vision, a willing servant to the secret automaton. 

The intimate authenticity of sabotage.

Once the inner parts of the piano disappear, the former education of the pianist becomes insignificant. Not only has the entire piano repertoire become impossible to play, but his training, stylistic knowledge and idiomatic intuition also become useless. Nevertheless, this sabotage is not a provocation but the ultimate expression of a creative process. The pianist reaches, through the many hours of practice necessary to master an instrument, a fiery physical bond with his instrument. Again and again hands and fingers devote themselves to the keys in a repeated attempt to hear the instrument as an extension of the body. That desire for a perfect symbiosis between the physical body of the player and the instrumental sound is freed when, thanks to the disappearance of the mechanical armour, fingers can finally touch the strings.

A guide for the nostalgic pianist.

The pianist, in the process of dismantling his instrument, is prised out of his role as an interpreter. He’s left behind in a situation where only improvisation and composition can save him. Disarmed as he is, the nostalgic pianist seeks support in a number of rules which remind him of his pianistic identity:

a. He turns an old upright piano onto its back after the keyboard and all the mechanical pieces have been removed.

b. He only uses his hands and parts of the instrument itself for playing; no external objects are utilised to manipulate the strings (‘extended piano techniques’). Neither does he make use of electronic devices to alter the sound (‘piano and electronics’).

c. He records everything himself and there is no cutting, pasting or layering in the recording.

d. He plays the compositions a few times without pausing, consequently choosing the best versions for the album:

“I decided to sabotage the piano and therefore my education at the conservatory. All scores become unplayable, I become inert from a piano player’s point of view. The sense of direction disappears, there’s no more of that black and white geography, only bass copper strings to the right and shorter and shorter strings to the left. Classical note systems become unusable. The love for the instrument is so strong however that I choose to recover the wreckage of the piano (keys, pieces of fabric, metal tenons…). I use the keys as multipurpose mallets, I sometimes introduce piano parts in between the strings and re-build the instrument which can’t be relied to produce exact notes anymore. Furthermore, nothing keeps me from listening to the sound of the varnish being scraped off. Freed from classical tuning I stretch the broken strings right across the frame.”

The dramatic dismantling turns the piano performance into a theatrical experience. You see the pianist as a percussionist squeezing sound out of an obsolete, retired object. No use in being a refined, cultivated pianist as a dandy now, you need muscled arms and a strong back to conquer the uselessness of the instrument. Any concert, when employing this new-found instrument, becomes unpredictable due to the fact that the keys and the frame, not built for this, wear out. The metal pins of the keys have a layer of felt that may come off at any moment, immediately sharpening the sound. The pin might also pierce the key, making it unusable. Bass strings especially tend to break. The keys easily get caught in between strings; releasing them is noisy and requires time and the use of both hands.

The musical fantasy of the performer has to work hand in hand with his mind, which must be oriented towards finding practical solutions. The speed of reaction with which the musician responds to accidents caused by components wearing out determines to what degree he can push the musical build-up. That is why there’s no need to prevent these accidents from happening by, for example, gluing the tissues.

The pianist-writer.

The first action that ‘le pianiste démécanisé’ undertakes is exquisitely nostalgic. He comes up with an album on vinyl and rejects all the modern editing and recording techniques, thus projecting his music in a future from which it returns as a boomerang, and equally securing his place in piano history.

Vinyl, in comparison to CD, offers more graphical possibilities to materialise music and ideas. It traditionally has two covers. The hard outer one protects and enables the visualisation of music, also making room for explanatory text. The thin cover provides extra protection against dust and scratching. This principle is reversed when introducing the external cover in the inner one and displaying all the text on the above mentioned inner cover. Consequently, intuitive music is protected by a cover consisting of this very text. Following the tradition of classical recordings, it is the pianist who provides the necessary description of the music pieces:

Side A
1.      ‘Réanimation forcée’ is the forced reanimation of the piano wreck, a somewhat overloaded opening meant to display a wide spectrum of playing techniques and leading dynamics in a pulsating rythmicity.
2.      The fulfilled, intimate feel of ‘amour éternelle’ voices the unity between instrument and musician, necessary for the concept. The low, dark basses create a resounding universe in which the pianist can daringly prove his love for the strings and resonance with almost painful glissandi. There is a third layer of harp-like sounds which are, in between glissandi and basses, reminiscent of classical piano playing and which act as an intermediary between the two antagonists.
3.      The pianist explores, in the ‘toccata cardiaque’, the physical borders of his rediscovered instrument, consequently alluding to virtuouso toccata tradition from piano literature. He touches the resonating heart of the piano with three crescendos played on different spots of the frame until the strings or the keys with which he drums on the frame may start to give out and therefore sound overmodulated (by touching neighboring strings). That disturbance is a victory since that is normally not possible on modern pianos that have a hammer mechanism. At this point the instrument and the player meet in a transcendental space where the trilling of the strings overpowers the preprogrammed self-protectiveness of the instrument.
Side B
1.      The grotesque ‘poil palliatif’ ritual marks the beginning of the battle with death with scratching noises, odd drum-rolls, hard knocks and beastly cries. The action takes place on the wrinkled skin of the wooden frame where the keys scrape off the varnish and in the cruel strikes on pieces of key that are squeezed in between bass strings. This is no soft treatment but a barbaric plan to bring scrap material back to the purpose of making sound.
2.      ‘Gonflammation’ is the very ritual of burning; in the melting sound deformities, old piano techniques rise to the surface and immediately disappear in the swelling clouds of sound. Recognisable piano notes still spark out here and there from the glowing sound embers. The frame is prepared for burial: measurements are taken using a black key instead of a ruler, a key that is grindingly pushed onto the strings and that creates a dry ‘tock’ whenever it hits the side.
3.      The remaining piano carcass is yet again forced to play an entertaining role in the hysterical dance of ‘animation geriatrique’. The latter is mercilessly restrained with pizzicatos that have more structure than body in their sound.
4.      ‘Pour le piano’ was recorded against all rules using an external sound source that plays a piece of nostalgic piano music in the vicinity of the strings and the microphones. The pianist accompanies the classical sounding music gently touching the strings with his fingers, evoking the sea or the wind that in their turn allude to romantic sanctuaries to which the classical piano music takes us.