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In Writing

Composers Anonymous: Tickling The Ivories

April 2013

In Philip Clark's latest column, he asks whether the piano, fixed as it to equal temparement, is still relevant.

Before – oh happy day – I signed up to Twitter, the likelihood of me sharing ideas about John Cage, Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman with Richard Coles, keyboard player with 1980s pop duo The Communards and now a Church of England vicar, were at best slim.

One day in March, I noticed Coles tweet: “Pianists! Do you share with me the growing conviction that things have rather dropped off since Debussy, Ravel and Janáček?” That’s not a conviction I share. Not at all. “What about Xenakis, Cage, Feldman. Not original enough for you?” I retorted. “Little brooklets compared with the mighty tributaries of D R and J,” came the reply. After which those "new interactions" gathered pace. Me: “But X C and F et al are whole new oceans, currents, tidal waves of sound!” Coles: “*affixes water wings and has curates push bathing machine into turbid torrents*”. Eventually I reckoned some New York School Modernism might float his boat and, asking Coles to prepare himself for Morton Feldman’s svelte counterpoint and graceful melodic invention, I posted this video of Feldman’s 1985 solo piano work For Bunita Marcus.

But could there be some kernel of truth in the Reverend’s sermon? At some point during the twentieth century it is true, undeniably, that the piano became less useful to a certain type of composer. For a whole two centuries previously the instrument had been the near-universal reference point for all composers. The music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Chopin and, yes indeed, Debussy and Ravel blossomed from their intimate relationship to the keyboard.

With Wagner? Mahler? Is that when cracks start to appear in this neat composer lineage? The piano accompaniments to Mahler’s early period lieder were in fact brazenly inventive in terms of timbre and gesture, but his ambition for what he needed his music to be could never have ultimately been accommodated satisfactorily on a piano. Human voices, layers within layers, the physical kick of an orchestra – that’s what he needed.

And composers for whom the instrument became similarly less useful as a tool during the 20th century would include those motivated to express texture for texture’s sake, and those who instinctively think microtonally. Pianos can be tuned up and down microtonally – check out Clarence Barlow’s Çoǧluotobüsişletmesi below for an example of that – but electric keyboards are way more stable and dependable. Pianos can also, when manned by a virtuoso pianist, generate complex textures. But instruments capable of bending and twisting notes, where attack is less defined – essentially any instrument other than the piano – are more fit for that purpose.

No, the piano’s big problem is that it remains indelibly and inflexibly tied to anachronistic equal temperament; push against its innate tuning, as Barlow does, and equal temperament will reassert its presence as a distorted, resonant ghost. The classical concert pianist Stephen Hough once told me: “I don’t think Schoenberg grasped that when you play a thick heavy chord in the bass of the piano, overtones are part of that chord, and collide in a way I’m not sure he intended them to. The piano is very difficult to write atonal music for, because it gives you more than the notes you write.” Right music, wrong temperament.

Cage temporarily short-circuited the problems by overhauling the piano’s inner-mechanism, tucking screws and bolts inside the piano strings. But I don’t believe Cage’s Sonatas And Interludes is spritiually piano music at all; clearly the work is scratching the same itch as his percussion music. Subsequently Cage would, in works like Music Of Changes and Etudes Australes, deal with conventional piano technique, albeit typically obliquely. His Etudes are designed as a duo for the pianist’s right and left hands, and Cage stipulates that one hand must never help the other out of sticky technical corners. In the spirit of the great piano music of the past, Cage is redefining the function of technique, aware that nuances of technique equate to big differences in sound – especially if the right hand is dealing with an overload of notes as the left remains still and unused.

Xenakis, Messiaen and Finnissy also pushed the piano beyond itself, the mystery of their gestures, the complexity of the information they ask us to process, overcoming the plainness of the temperament suggesting that one man’s drop off is another’s repurposing. And I hesitate to query a man of the cloth but, Richard, you owe me a tweet – how did you get on with that Morton Feldman?


This is a wholly unsatisfying and rather pretentious piece of writing.

What of the examples of La Monte Young, Terry Riley and others who pushed against even temperament in their keyboard works? While Riley gained insight from Indian modal techniques his keyboard works often reflect the influence of Bachian fugues, driven to new and unprecedented possibilities. Is it a Modernist habit to inject a sense of obsolescence into idiom?

@06/01/2014 No it's not. And even if it were, at least this author had the courage to ID himself, unlike you.

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