Exciting Developments in Piano Technology

So it turns out that I haven’t been paying attention to what pianos have been getting up to in the 15 years since I bought a Roland digital piano.

First of all, the lines between acoustic (i.e., normal) pianos and digital pianos have been blurring: enter the digital hybrid. This can be a digital piano with acoustic characteristics, like a digital piano with a resonant soundboard in addition to speakers (for example, the Kawai CA901). This can be an acoustic piano with a digital mode, such as a so-called silent piano where engaging silent mode disengages the hammers and activates a small digital amplifier that outputs to headphones.

Kawai NV10s action

And some hybrid pianos really blur the lines, like Kawai’s Novus series (NV5s, NV10s) and Yamaha’s AvantGrand series: these are top-end digital pianos that don’t just use key actions that closely mimic an acoustic’s keys—in most cases they literally use the exact same keyboard parts as their acoustic uprights and grands. For someone interested in replicating the touch of a grand piano without necessarily having the room or funds for one, this is of immense interest, though the prices of the top-end hybrids get awfully close to those of their entry-level acoustic grands.

(See the Philadelphia Piano Institute’s guide to hybrid pianos; this 2009 Slate article doesn’t do the subject justice. There are also a ton of videos about digital hybrids on YouTube, mainly from piano stores who would very much like to sell you one: Merriam Music’s channel is very good and full of useful detail without being too hard a sell.)

Meanwhile, I’m shocked to learn that there has been some innovation on the grand piano front. Belgian piano maker Chris Maene has designed and built two unusual grand pianos. One is a straight-stringed instrument straight out of the 19th century, but with 21st-century part and build quality. (Modern pianos are cross-stringed: there is a difference in sound.) The pianist Daniel Barenboim commissioned it from Maene in 2011 and has since performed and recorded with it, and so, it seems, have other performers, now that Maene has gone into production with it.

Chris Maene’s Straight Strung Grand Piano (left) and Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand Piano (right).

The other, the Maene-Viñoly grand, is just trippy: the keyboard is curved and the strings radiate outward. It’s something I’d have expected to see on a luxury starship. See Kirill Gerstein perform Chopin on one here.

Plan 9: The Opera!

Ed Wood’s awful cult classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space, is being made into an opera—by none other than Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul. It’s actually a good fit: Somtow wrote a lot of science fiction, fantasy and horror in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s before returning to composing; he even directed a direct-to-video horror film and is a self-described B-movie fanatic. And while it’s true that Plan 9 is terrible, it’s terrible in a way that might just work as an opera. The Hollywood Reporter: “‘I won’t use a single word in the libretto that wasn’t straight from the pen of Ed Wood,’ says Sucharitkul. ‘Whether the Bela Lugosi character will manage a plaintive, tragic aria, when he was silent (not to mention dead) during the entire production of the film . . . that will be a nice little Easter egg to come.’” (That should be something: here’s the Plan 9 script.)

Tom Lehrer in the Public Domain

Tom Lehrer is putting all his songs and lyrics, as well as performing, recording and translation rights, into the public domain, according to a statement dated 1 November 2022 on his website. “In short, I no longer retain any rights to any of my songs,” he writes. “So help yourselves, and don’t send me any money.” Everything is available to download from his website: songs from his albums as MP3s, and lyrics and sheet music as PDFs (in case being able to play “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” was a life goal of yours—and really, why isn’t it, if it isn’t?). But Lehrer notes that the site will be shut down “in the not too distant future, so if you want to download anything, don’t wait too long.”

The Musicwriter

The Musicwriter is one of several music typewriters created to print sheet music. Some music typewriters were their own thing, whereas the Musicwriter started life as a normal typewriter before being converted to print notes and staves. You operated it by typing with the right hand and moving the carriage with the left, which sounds a bit tricky to get right—like writing music with an Etch-a-Sketch. Several typewriters served as Musicwriter root stock over the years, including the 6-series Smith-Corona and, more recently, the Olympia SG3 (an example of which can be seen in this Facebook group post). More about Musicwriters from Ted Munk in Et Cetera 109 (2015), pp. 12-15, and in this addendum collecting all kinds of photos, ephemera and type samples.

Ethics in Opera Reviewing

The latest contretemps concerning ethics in reviewing comes not from science fiction or computer games, but opera.

Earlier this month, the National Post pulled their review of a Canadian Opera Company performance of Rossini’s Maometto II after a COC public relations manager, Jennifer Pugsley, wrote the Post to complain about a couple of points in the review. Rather than standing by their reviewer, freelancer Arthur Kapitainis, or making the corrections requested, features producer Dustin Parkes apologized and pulled the review.

Kapitainis quit (inasmuch as a freelancer can do so); his review was reprinted at Musical Toronto before being restored, sans an offending sentence, at its original location.

In the email exchange between Pugsley and Parkes (reprinted here), Parkes noted that performing arts reviews “simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content.” (He went on to ask about getting tickets. Ahem.)

As for the news coverage of this incident, the Washington Post focuses on the role, and importance, of arts criticism in journalism, whereas  this Maclean’s piece looks at the economics of arts reviews in leaner, meaner times: reviewing the performing arts in mainstream publications has never been viable; it’s just that newspapers used to have money enough to subsidize it.

As I see it, critical integrity is beside the point in cases like these. I suspect that performing arts coverage has always been filed under civic boosterism (the tickets are part and parcel): covering the event, rather than critiquing it, is what’s important. No one, after all, wants to read that the local orchestra can’t play worth a damn—what good would that do?

Valentina Lisitsa and Artists’ Social Capital

Here’s my take on the Valentina Lisitsa affair.

Lisitsa, a Russian-speaking, Ukrainian-born classical pianist, was scheduled to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last week, but she was dropped by the TSO over a series of offensive tweets about ethnic Ukrainians and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lisitsa has a social media presence—her reputation was basically made on YouTube—and the inevitable online shitstorm ensued. That shitstorm swallowed up Stewart Goodyear, the pianist tapped to replace Lisitsa, who had to bow out in turn. (More at Musical Toronto and NPR.)

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Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph


I’ve read Beethoven biographies before, but Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is in a different category altogether. For one thing, it’s a thousand pages long. But despite its length it maintains an analytical coherence that can mark the best biographies, regardless of their length, whereas the worst just muddle through anecdote after anecdote. Swafford, who’s also written about Brahms and Charles Ives, sketches two distinct threads—the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and his precarious health—and examines how those two things had an impact on Beethoven and his work.

That examination benefits from the book’s length and Swafford’s perspective on Beethoven’s entire life (rather than a specific work, say the Ninth). Beethoven’s encroaching deafness is often related to his work with no real insight; he was, in fact, plagued with a number of illnesses, mostly due to lead poisoning and alcoholism. And it’s impossible to understand the political and philosophical core of the Ninth Symphony without understanding how Beethoven grew up in and related to the Aufklärung, the Napoleonic Wars, and the increasing political repression of Metternich-era Austria that led to the Biedermeier period.

Swafford is a composer himself and spends considerable time—whole chapters, for some pieces—analysing Beethoven’s music in considerable detail. If you’re not a musical sort you can skip past these sections, the way that a lot of readers might gloss over the songs and poetry in The Lord of the Rings, but I found his analyses quite illuminating when they covered a piece I’d studied and knew very well.

More importantly, he’s better able to describe what the hell Beethoven was doing, particularly in relation to the trends of the time and his peers. It is, in other words, valuable to have a composer’s perspective, rather than a classical music devotee’s—all the difference between the perspective of an oenophile and a winemaker.

It makes the book much more about the music and less about the personality. Yes, it’s a biography, and as such has to be about the personality, but we wouldn’t be reading about a violent and unhygienic misanthrope if he wasn’t producing some of the best music in human history.

I’m not at all surprised it took Swafford twelve years to write this thing; he’s produced something very close to the authoritative biography on the man.

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