The piano man and all that jazz

Future Tense for Jun. 18, 2007

By Steve Welker

While my middle son attends summer school in Savannah, I may have his piano tuned.

He might play more.

And I might begin playing piano again.

Yes, and the next day I might try climbing Mount Everest.

I took piano lessons from second grade until I entered high school. I must have had incredibly patient teachers, because I had no talent for the instrument and an erratic sense of rhythm. Also, throughout baseball season, I much preferred playing stickball and running the bases to running scales on the piano.

However, pianists rank high among my favorite musicians, probably because of listening to my grandmother. She was an accomplished (and largely self-taught) pianist who, born in 1901, was old enough to have heard fellow Missourian Scott Joplin perform before his death in 1917. She played stride-piano jazz, marches, rags, gospel, hymns and “pop” songs from six decades until arthritis ended her playing career in her 80s.

At an early age, my son begged for piano lessons. He practiced on an old upright a friend gave us for free (though it cost $50 to have the piano movers haul it from her basement to our living room). A few years ago, he wanted a better instrument and convinced me to buy a baby grand piano.

This old baby grand had a good sound, but a much-worn, age-darkened finish. My son, whose many hobbies include refinishing furniture, convinced me he could restore it. I had two friends, both piano restorers, who advised us on the process. Their first advice was not to try.

Refinishing a piano requires dismantling it. The farther you delve into the guts of the instrument, the more you appreciate how much a piano is a technologically complex machine (you knew I’d get into technology at some point, didn’t you?).

The creation of the first pianos drew on the skills used to make clavichords and harpsichords, but actually resulted from one man’s huge leap in technology. Near the end of the 18th century, Italian harpsichord-maker Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a revolutionary combination of mechanisms that a colleague called “the pianoforte,” meaning “soft-loud.” Harpsichords plucked strings without varying the sound volume. The pianoforte hammered its strings and, because of Cristofori’s inventions, a pianist could play at various levels and faster speeds. By the mid-1700s, Bach was composing music for it. Other composers soon fell in love with the piano’s wide range (originally five octaves; later almost eight) and musicians appreciated its versatility. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin — most of the great names of classical music — wrote for the piano and played it themselves.

By the time my grandmother arrived at the outset of the 20th century, the piano pretty much had reached its apex in design. But in those 150 years from 1750 to 1900, pianos changed radically. Iron frames, instead of wood, held the strings with a combined tension of up to 20 tons (my son’s piano is a Chickering, made by the company that perfected iron frames for pianos around 1840). Because of those iron frames, each note could be allotted three strings instead of two, producing greater volume. Steinway in 1874 invented “duplex scaling” that allowed strings to vibrate along their full length, adding even more resonance.

The modern piano also had three pedals. Cristofori’s pianoforte had only one, now called “the damper pedal,” plus a lever called “una coda” that the pianist pressed with a knee.

The dampers on each piano string prevent it from vibrating sympathetically with other strings. Cristofori’s innovation, the damper pedal, lifts those dampers and lets the strings vibrate fully and sympathetically with other strings, which increases the piano’s tone.

Cristofori’s una corda shifted the hammer from striking two strings for each note to only one string, producing half the sound.

The modern soft pedal moves the hammer so it strikes only two of the three strings for each note, producing two-thirds the volume.

Because of those technological changes, classical composers might not recognize some of their compositions played on a modern grand. People interested in what’s called “authentic performance” have reconstructed the old instruments and, depending on the composition, the difference between the “authentic” sound and the modern one is so pronounced that even I can hear it. Not surprisingly, some classical music also sounds much better on the instruments for which it was composed.

If you think about it, no classical music was composed to be recorded, either. And some just doesn’t sound as good in recordings. People who heard the late Jorge “George” Bolet in concert say he may have been the foremost modern interpreter of Liszt, but no one knows for certain because Decca had so much difficulty recording Bolet’s performances.

Despite improved recording systems, some modern musicians still lose something in translation from live performance to recording. After I heard Elton John in concert, I rarely played his “Honky Chateau” album because, good as it is, the recording simply didn’t reproduce same the room-filling volume and intensity. John’s hard-to-find live album, “11-17-70,” captures more of his authentic sound — especially in the 18-1/2-minute-long “Burn Down the Mission” medley — but the re-mixed version now on CD doesn’t come close.

Here’s the almost-bottom line. If you want to hear the full sound, intricacy and subtlety of, say, J.S. Bach, you still need to buy a ticket and go to a live concert by someone like Marc-Andre Hamelin, who critics say may be the next Glenn Gould.

You may not know, because he has been dead nearly a quarter-century, but Gould was one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists. He was born in 1932 and performed for 37 years until his death, but few people (and no one now under age 50) ever heard him play in concert, because he stopped giving public performances around 1964.

Even fans of “authentic” music concede that Gould probably came as close as anyone to playing Bach’s music as Bach himself wrote it and heard it. Gould’s 1955 Columbia Masterworks recording of the “Goldberg Variations” is one of the all-time-best albums of any piano music. However, he had notorious eccentricities and his studio recordings invariably catch him humming or singing along with the music, scraping his chair and adding other acoustic distractions. Many people wonder, “What did he sound like in concert?”

Technology may provide an answer. Back in May, Dr. John Walker of Zenph Studios in Raleigh hosted a concert of music that has not been heard live in nearly 80 years.

Walker has invented a computer system that breaks down the sound of old recordings, digitizes it and produces an instruction set on CD that can be played by a Yamaha Disklavier Pro. As it massages the recorded music, the software screens out scratches and other surface noise and corrects the distortions of old microphones or variations in recording speed.

The Yamaha Disklavier itself is an acoustic piano — not an electronic one or synthesizer — that can be programmed sort of like an old-fashioned player piano. Also, like a reproducing piano (one that directly records a pianist’s keystrokes), the Disklavier can add subtleties of expression, such as double striking a note before the hammer is fully withdrawn and sostenuto pedaling. As a result, a listener can hear recorded music from an actual piano, rather than a vinyl album or CD.

Walker’s system is one of many attempts to recapture and reproduce original piano performances using modern technology. Aficionados say most of these systems still seem colorless and mechanical, but may be coming closer to the real thing.

To hear authentic piano music in the meanwhile, perhaps I should have my son’s piano retuned and resume my own lessons ... in the future.

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