Creative Frontiers, Sturm und Drang, Synthesisers and the Piano


Nils Frahm, Dustin O'Halloran, Ólafur Arnalds, Hans Zimmer. The broader post-classical movement has come to be defined by that particular harmonic flavour which unites the acoustic and synthetic. We can imagine these composers as careful horticulturalists: the noble piano lounges peacefully amidst their lush, expansive, markedly modern sonic foliage. The tools of their trade are the Moogs, the Korgs, the Juno-60s - and the piano, like a calm and waning retiree, is invited to rest awhile amongst this musical flowering. Keep an eye on the grandkids, will you?

When I compare modern piano music to the classical repertoire, most obvious is the absence of "Sturm und Drang", that fire, epitomized by Beethoven. Maybe the only rational reaction to the chaos of the modern world is to cultivate calm. Perhaps the piano tickles these neurons for us in a way that other instruments can't. Perhaps it symbolises a return to youthful yearning, innocence, potential and the calming aura of childhood; so many musicians started their journey as a child in front of a piano. Is that association cemented in our brains?

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If the piano could reminisce about its prime, it would certainly recall the lives of Schumann, Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin. The romantic composers of the 19th century were breathing that fire into the instrument. The awkward teenage years of the fortepiano had passed. Genius instrument makers like Érard were beefing up the piano, making it bigger, louder, sturdier, more reliable. The piano became a true solo concert instrument, capable of filling a room on its own and holding its own with an orchestra.

Technological innovation, as always, breeds creativity. Creative minds have always been most fertile at the boundaries of possibility, and the fruits of this particular 19th-century frontier lie in the piano repertoire which we all enjoy today. But of course, this music is also the spawn of a time of social, economic, and political upheaval. The old world was burning, literally, in the fires of the industrial revolution, colonialism, and war. It was even seen as a mark of national industrial might if a country could produce quality pianos, and of course, many historical instruments do survive and still play well. And though the genres have changed over the intervening 200 years, the map has been redrawn, and technology has transformed every other aspect of our lives, new pianos are still built in very much the same way. The design of the piano itself is as much a legacy of this era as the repertoire.

Despite what the above history lesson might suggest, I've never been one for nostalgia. Of course, I love the piano. My own creative voice finds its outlet in a daily dance across those 88 keys. But I look to the past to find an answer to my fundamental question, where is today's creative frontier, and how can I tap into it? In music, I see a renaissance in sound synthesis, especially in the new popularity of analogue synthesisers and of modular synthesis. This is where I start my search. But does the piano's voice have a place in this modern zeitgeist? And if I adopt the tools of this century rather than the 19th, does that mean my own creative voice will be silenced?

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