Mar 13th 2020

The 88-tooth monster, doomed to evolve or die

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.”

Stuart has it right. The behemoth that once adorned middle-class salons East and West is already in steep decline. In the long term, it looks doomed. Owners often complain these pianos occupy too much space and nobody wants to take them away – not even for free. Only three piano makers survive in the United States compared to dozens just a few years ago. Some 80 percent of piano production is now in China, mostly for the Chinese market.

The trends are downward because of declining interest in piano study in Western cultures and competition from a dizzying array of digital devices that attract our young. These gadgets require no practice time, no studying and – most importantly – no waiting. As Jean-François Dichamp of the Barcelona Superior School of Music told me recently, “Learning to interpret music demands a lot of time and maturity. It seems the new generations are not prepared for this kind of patience.”

The “acoustic” piano, the 88-tooth monster, is threatened from another direction, even more pressing. New electronic models – the virtual pianos – storming in from Asia are undercutting the classic piano in price and performance with versatile digital or hybrid keyboards that feel and sound just about right. Young players love them. Yamaha, Casio, Guangzhou Pearl River, Samick, KORG, Kawai and others are competing in this transition period. Some concert pianists travel with their favorite electronic keyboard for a quiet run-through in their hotel room before a concert. It looks like a first step toward entry on the concert stage.

Schools and institutions, the bread-and-butter market for the industry, are showing a preference for the low cost and easy maintenance of digital systems. Sales projections are for electronic keyboards to exceed a million units worldwide annually within three years. Steinway, the market leader in acoustics, says it can produce only about 3,000 units a year.

The clunky, heavy, expensive classic piano, critics argue, may eventually end up in a museum by late in this century, displayed as beautiful furniture.

Before that happens, the acoustic piano still has some potential to change and improve.

Paris musicologist and pianist Ziad Kreidy recently collected views from twelve piano builders around the world and found that most are “not satisfied with the status quo”. Ironically, they consider that the market dominance of Steinway “unfairly stopped historical evolution”. In his recent book “Keys to the Piano” (Editions Aedam Musicae) Kreidy notes that a few innovative builders who have survived Steinway’s aggressive commercial strategies and aspire to offer “new possibilities for musicians, to widen acoustic horizons, to exceed Steinway and its competitors”.

German piano builder David Klavins says, for example, that new materials such as carbon fibre offer “significantly better options. In his experience, he told Kreidy, “I have discovered that virtually every aspect of the acoustic piano can be improved remarkably when and if builders begin to think outside the box…”

There is much conflicting data, with market forces pushing in opposite directions. But research indicates pressures are building for a “rethink” along Stuart’s and Klavins’ lines.

Piano innovation has a long history. When Franz Liszt joined forces with his French friend Sebastien Erard to introduce the last major improvement, the double-action piano that became the world standard in the 1770s, European music-lovers were both stunned and thrilled. Rapid repetition of single notes was suddenly possible. People by the thousands traveled to concert halls to hear the great Liszt demonstrate the new musical fireworks that Erard had enabled.

Liszt was the rock star of the 18th century. He roamed around Europe with his new Erard on loan, prompting ladies in his audiences to faint in ecstasy as he exploited the piano’s new potential. Other players quickly followed Liszt’s example.

But it was nearly 100 years later that Heinrich Steinway industrialized the production of his improved version, and his heirs still rule the piano world today, standardized and robotized in construction. Nearly all recent improvements have been cosmetic, however, lacking any “rethink” of any consequence.

The Steinway influence has not been entirely positive. Critics such as Stuart refer to the brand as “Stoneway” for its innovation lethargy. The latest “new thing” is the best Steinway can manage -- the Spirio. Aggressively marketed, it seems to be a toy for the very rich, delivering high-resolution recordings of leading pianists’ performances to run on a player piano in private homes. But who wants Lang Lang in their living room? Will a hologram of the Chinese showman be the next step? The technology is there.

To be sure, most leading pianists roll out their Steinways onstage and are satisfied once the tuner wrests the strings into shape. But often at intermission, after just an hour of Chopin or Rachmaninov, the strings need further attention from a tuner as the audience looks on.

Other brands struggle to maintain smaller share of the market in Steinway’s shadow. Each has its personality, measurable in tiny advantages. Boesendorfer, Fazioli, Grotrian, Sauter, Shigeru Kawai, Steingraeber  and Yamaha all claim to be the best. The American aphorism applies : Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.

This century will almost certainly produce a new look, feel and technology for pianos – ones we are only beginning to imagine.

MJ New Piano

 

Experiments have already appeared on the market. Klavins’ creation (above) is seeking $6 million investment for development of his striking Model 408. Its mission, he says, is to “eliminate each and all acoustic and technological shortcomings that are associated with traditional grand pianos, including Steinway”.

Fazioli builds futuristic designs custom-made for billionaires Boesendorfer builds a 92-key “Imperial” known as the world’s most expensive piano at about  $180,000. It has never caught on.

Other innovations can be found here and there. Bigger keyboards with additional octaves, sounds that will rattle your teeth, micro-tonalities that make your head swim, electronic expansions that imitate entire orchestras – or useful things like canned laughter, stormy applause and even gunshots.

More innovation is coming just over the horizon. French piano builder Stephen Paulello, a pioneer in innovative design, has commercialized his Opus 102 model that offers an expanded keyboard of 102 keys. Soon he will launch a 108-key version, equal to that of Wayne Stuart’s world first, his Big Beleura.

 

MJ Wide Piano

 

 

Pianist Ashley Hribar, at the Big Beleura Australian keyboard (above) has recorded a CD, soon to be released, featuring revisions of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 and his own Paganini Variations, among others, transformed by the range of the 108-key instrument. Ears are bound to perk up.

He and other pianists who have tried this model say they cannot imagine returning to the standard 88-key model. In this clip, Hribar calls on the deep bass and high treble to enhance “Fingerbreaker”, the Jelly Roll Morton classic.

 

 

This is not to say the world has fallen out of love with the classic piano, whatever its limitations. No instrument comes close to producing such a range of sound, loud or soft, to convey the beauty of music.

MJ Khatia B
Khatia Buniatishvili by the author Michael Johnson

 

Can an estimated 60 million young Chinese students be wrong? They are studying and mastering Western piano music on the classic design. And international piano competitions exceed 750 worldwide, attracting Asians and Europeans as well as a few Americans. Conservatories such as Curtis and Juilliard are thriving on the influx of talented Asian students.
MJ Lang Lang
Lang Lang by the author Michael Johnson 

Leading players help keep seats filled in concert halls by staging dramatic performances in short skirts, low tops, high heels, and – for the men – eye makeup and acrobatic writhing, hair flicks and in Lang Lang’s case, the occasional wink at the audience. Audiences are divided between love and hatred of these excesses.

Contemporary composers are eager to contribute ideas to these expanded keyboards. Many encourage us to liberate old prejudices, to open our ears to new possibilities in piano music, new harmonies, new sounds. The first composer to write for the Stuart model is Brazilian composer Artur Cimirro. Others have adopted classics to incorporate the additional sonorities.

A leader in this world, Prof. Kyle Gann of Bard Collage in the United States, says you must listen to his micro-tonality work over and over again to learn – and unlearn – what a piano can do. His instrument uses computer technology to simulate more than 300 keys. A sample of his ethereal creations can he heard in his recent album “Hyperchromatica”.

 

 

 

We are lucky to be alive as the piano undergoes this metamorphosis. It will be an unsettling, disturbing period, just as Christofori, Erard and Heinrich Steinway dared to rethink the instrument in the 18th and 19th and 20th centuries.

 

Now it’s our century. Now it’s our turn.

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This article is based on a presentation recently delivered by the author at the Barcelona Superior School of Music of Catalonia.

 

For related articles, see:

Giant piano from Australia now accessible online

No, it’s not ‘crazy’ to want 20 more keys on your piano

 


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