Can one still write for the piano today?

Can one still write for the piano today? Through the 19th century and to the beginning of the 20th it was the emblematic instrument, the composer’s confidant; but has it survived the array of tortures inflicted upon it by the end of the 20th century? After the clusters of Henry Cowell, the preparations of John Cage, the ornithological percussions of Messiaen, the electrified mantras of Stockhausen, and the various scrapings and pinchings of strings, what space is left to the instrument?

I think that my response, at first subconscious, but gradually more and more clearly articulated, has been to return to the true essence of the piano, to its acoustic realities, and to ignore the trivialities of fashion as well as the weight of history...

After a performance of Les Travaux et les jours..., several composer colleagues expressed their astonishment at having heard a ‘microtonal’ piano. The piano had certainly been perfectly tuned; the effect was due entirely to the way in which the piece had been written. A question that is often asked of me is: “Your harmonic writing is microtonal, how do you write for the piano, the perfect tempered instrument?” My response is that although the piano is effectively tuned according to equal temperament because of our historical heritage, its sonorities, above all in the lowest register, are rich and complex, bursting with harmonics, and naturally untempered.

An illustration of the piano’s acoustic reality can be heard at the end of Territoires de l’Oubli: a low F and a middle register D sharp are repeated over and over; from this F the seventh harmonic emerges clearly, a low D sharp. This harmonic from the F excites the middle register D sharp which begins to vibrate strongly. Even if in other contexts the phenomenon is less evident, this type of acoustic interference often modifies the colour of chords and allows the piano to work outside of the temperament. My writing for the piano attempts therefore to rethink the interior of the piano – that is not to suggest that one plays inside the piano (all of my pieces only use the keyboard in the traditional manner) but attempting to listen to the piano in the truth of its resonances.
Those thoughts from Tristan Murail resonate with Hazrat Inayat Khan’s teachings on the centrality of vibrations, and with al-Kindī's theory that all objects and beings emanate radiations that affect all other beings. Tristan Murail was writing in the sleeve note for Marilyn Nonken’s recording of his complete piano music on Métier. Accompanying photos were taken at the 2011 L’art dans les chapelles in the Pontivy region of Brittany. Further resonances include Murail’s degree in classical and Maghrib Arabic, and the inclusion of his Cloche d’adieu, et un sourire ... In memoriam Olivier Messiaen in Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Norman Perryman’s ‘Piano Colours’ kinetic art project. Marilyn Nonken, who has written that “composers sharing the spectral attitude would lead their listeners to discover the eroticism of hearing”, continues her survey of spectral piano music with the newly released Voix Voilées. This features compositions by Joshua Fineberg and Hugues Dufort and answers the question 'Can one still write for the piano today?' with a resounding yes.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos are © On An Overgrown Path 2012. The Tristan Murail disc was purchased online, Voix Voilées was a requested sample. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


rchrd said…
Don't forget the piano music of William Duckworth (just deceased, sadly), Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Hans Otte, and Simeon ten Holt, just to name a few. (All still living and writing piano music, except for, sadly again, Duckworth and Otte).

Yes, the piano is still a viable instrument for the 21st C, thank goodness.

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