Jul 19th 2013

Pianoporn: How to liberate yourself from the 88-tooth monster

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.

Except for the lucky few who have the gift, students struggling to coax music out of a piano are in for a world of pain. Most of them just suffer in silence, and so do their families in the next room, as sharps become flats, allegro becomes lento, and Mozart rolls over in his grave.

But in the past few years, a strange ritual has taken root in our so-called civilization – an outlet for those who crack under the strain of music’s harsh discipline. It is called “piano destruction” and it is more than a diversion for vandals. Young pianists seem to go mad, jumping on the keys, smashing the sound board, raking the strings with garden tools, all captured on video. 

Fine instruments produced by piano craftsmen are transformed into bonfires, torn to pieces by heavy construction equipment, exploded with TNT, pushed over cliffs and dropped from tall buildings.

A search of the web reveals dozens of amateur piano-bashers at work under the heading “piano destruction”. The best compilation is a five-year-old link called “25 ways to kill a piano”, accessible at:

http://musicthing.blogspot.fr/2008/04/25-ways-to-kill-old-piano.html

Not everyone can find enjoyment from these wanton acts of devastation. Piano lovers cringe at the sight. 

Boys and girls, men and women, rush at a piano with an axe or hammer or iron bar. The more ambitious go to the woods and plant a bomb inside. Much jollity is usually associated with these events. Some even call it art.

But if the definition of pornography is an act offensive to public morality, this is pure piano porn. 

Occasionally a truly accomplished player takes out his frustration on the instrument. A few weeks ago in France, François-René Duchâble was back on stage recalling his spectacular act of vengeance. He says he liberated himself from an overly demanding career exactly ten years ago by dropping his piano from a helicopter into a lake and never saw it again.

“People thought this was a desperate move,” he recalled.  “In fact it was a liberation. An act of purification.” 

Thus he brought to a close 30 years as a concert pianist and recording star, “a life I detested”, he told Luc Bourriane, a reporter for Sud-Ouest newspaper, at a summer festival near Bordeaux. Duchâble  was about to perform at the keyboard – but on his own terms. 

At a stroke, the helicopter stunt had put an end to everything that was weighing him down – “the travel, the rehearsals, the recording sessions in which one is a mere student of the producer in the studio.” He likened his road trips to traveling around in a hearse. 

Duchâble feels his entire life was ruined by his career. “I have a few good memories, a few successes, but not much,” he recalled. “I spent 30 years regretting I had this talent which prevented me from having a life,” he recalled. Finally, he snapped.

Today, he feels “reborn”, playing sometimes on stage but also doing odd things with a keyboard mounted on a specially built tricycle, pedaling around Cap Ferret, a resort near Bordeaux.


François René Duchâble playing in relaxed mode.

The more common piano-bashers seem to be amateurs who arrive on the famous “plateau” of learning during which nothing seems to move forward despite intense practicing. Clips of piano destruction on YouTube are enlivened with viewer comments, such as: “Wow he must have had a terrible teacher.” 

Admittedly some aging pianos are so worn that they cannot be tuned, and there comes a time to drag them to the knackers yard like an old horse. What makes the practice obscene is the glee with which the demolishers attack the doomed instrument.

Piano teachers have much to answer for.





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