Well, it’s Friday and I’m in a rather good mood. So before I start posting awful stuff about the state of the world economy in general and the Irish economy in particular, I want to present something of rare beauty.
Over the past few days I’ve been listening to the infamous (and rather loony) Glenn Gould’s piano performance of Bach’s incredible The Art of Fugue (which can be listened to here). I then went on to read an amazing essay on Bach entitled ‘Bach Defended Against His Devotees‘, written by the German philosopher and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno in 1951.
Adorno complains about certain trends that were surrounding the performance of Bach’s music at the time Adorno was writing. Bach’s ‘devotees’, Adorno contended, held him up as a fetish idol – performing his music on period instruments of the Baroque era in order to keep the performances ‘authentic’. These instruments, Adorno argued, were not adequate to capture the nuances of Bach’s music… this despite the fact that they were the only ones available in Bach’s own time.
So, I got my hands on a recording of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor played on harpsichord (listen here). The harpsichord is a period instrument from Bach’s time that works sort of like a glorified harp – when a key is pushed a string is plucked. And what do you know? Adorno was right. Bach’s work is much more suited to a modern piano (although the harpsichord is not without its charms). The tone is more rich, more full – it really captures the mood much better (another good example is to listen to Gould’s recordings of The Art of Fugue on an organ [listen here] – the piano versions are far and away better).
All this got me thinking about another remarkable instrument I came across some time ago – the microtonal or fluid piano. This is in a whole different league to the harpsichord or the piano – as it actually changes not simply how something is played, but what is played.
Your typical piano keyboard is made up of 88 keys. The white keys are different tone (C,D,E etc.), while the black keys are what are called semitones (C sharp, D flat etc.). You could think of the semitones as coming ‘in between’ the tones.
Now, the fluid piano is completely different. It has a tuning bar set into each key. This means that, mid-performance the tone can be changed to pick up on any number of what are called ‘microtones’. Think of microtones as coming between semitones and tones – now consider that there exist almost an infinity of variations. You could, in a certain sense, compare this to a ‘whammy bar’ on a guitar. This too ‘bends’ the note in order to produce variations on them.
In practice, this mean that the fluid piano can pick up tones that aren’t included on the Western scale (A, A flat, B etc) – this gives the fluid piano an incredibly eerie, Oriental and, well, fluid sound. When you listen to the fluid piano, you don’t really hear ‘gaps’ between various notes – rather, they just sort of blend into each other. Its as if the notes existed, not in a hierarchy, but in a continuum.
Anyway, the best way to understand the fluid piano is to listen to it. So, here’s an excellent performance – you’ll also get an idea of how it works at the start when the player tunes and re-tunes each key.