Monday, September 23, 2013

Heavy Metal Piano

Once, a friend asked me to join her at El Coyote (the oldest Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles) to meet a couple of cohorts from a band she was playing in. She generously introduced me to the table as "a very talented keyboardist." (She was being kind. I had some ideas but not much for chops.) Seated at the table were the band's creative Svengali and another member who also happened to be his girlfriend. Following that introduction the first thing out of Svengali's mouth was "I hate keyboards."

Despite his apparent lack of socialization (eventually his girlfriend smoothed things over) and that polemical beginning, I could appreciate his sentiment. Keyboards do have a tortured history.

I suppose I can understand how someone with a low threshold for bitterness might treat keyboard music like a Fox News watcher does facts. If all you heard were Flock of Seagulls, Styx, Liberace, The Human League, whatever is playing at the local piano bar, prog, or the DX7 (see below), you might be justified in claiming that keyboards—and it's ugly bastard child the synthesizer—were the culprits of many a musical misdeed. But unsubtle taste and self-indulgent wankery isn't the fault of the gear anymore than smart phones are responsible for sucking every last ounce of people's attention.

And then there was the Yamaha DX7 ('83-'86), a rig of such a brutal sound—like so many wet fingers on processed glass goblets—it could make even the most seasoned bluesman come off like Yanni. As a result, lugubrious ballads grew up around it like jungle vines on a teeth-on-tinfoil soundwave. And it wasn't just the DX7, there were other culprits as well—the Junos and Jupiters, the Oberheim Xpanders and Matrix-12s, the Prophet-5s, and the Kurtzweils to name several—but the DX7 was truly the most fiendish of devil spawn.

All of that aside, obviously, in the right hands the piano is an instrument of devastating power, capable of spectrums of color and temperament unlike any other. In addition, no other instrument can describe such a sludgy, deep, and trenchant landscape as the piano. What else can create such morbidly fat chords and tone cluster collisions? What else owns such Godzilla-like lower registers and is capable of sledgehammered fortissimos? All of this makes the piano the ultimate chisel for avant-garde sound sculptures. Not even the most agonized, overdriven guitars or banks of synthesizers can compare—I'd argue that it's the ultimate metal machine. And it had its own special class of radical champions—to wit:

Some intemperate banging from Prokofiev. Compared to the four below it, this piece practically hummable. It is also by far the least abstract. I've long been a fan of this one:

Another Russian, Leo Ornstein, sometimes called a futurist, and the tone cluster seizure that is his Wild Men's Dance (Danse Sauvage):

Ornstein also wins points for cools titles—this one beats both the Jaws and Psycho themes for creepiness factor:

Arnold Schoenberg, Austrian expressionist, Nazi certified degenerate artist, and so called major landmark of 20th century musical thought, proves here that metal on the piano needn't be played loud. It's the asymmetrical rhythms and tonal patterns that make atonal music the ultimate in metal—like a brain on a defibrillator. You want anarchy? It doesn't get any more so than this.

Some notes on the Serialism and Atonality thing: Free Atonality, the precursor to Serialism, explored the concept of abandoning a tonal center and hierarchy (i.e., the significance of the dominant, subdominant, major/minor thirds, etc.) in composition; Serialism emerged later as a method of giving entirely equal significance to every note in a chromatic scale in a progression. You could see how a melody would have difficulty surviving in such an environment.

Here's a brutal one. Another Russki only this one a female: Galina Ustvolskaya. This tantrum of a piece is much like a more artful pounding of a face against the keys. About her work she says, "There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead." Wiki calls it blocks of sound. (I prefer my description.) Sonata No. 6 seems to have the characteristics of being written as someone in the next room was being interrogated on the keys by the Russian Mafia. It does have a sense of humor, though. While the other pieces here tend to be more mercifully short and deadly serious, this one goes on and on with long interludes of clustery sounds. It's as if its going on too long is its punchline.

This Stockhausen piece may be the speed metal version of metal piano (note the pianist's gloves) or a Jackson Pollack painting as a score. Once, during a performance of the piece (it quiets down some and goes on for 22 minutes) the composer reportedly banged a key so hard the key broke and flew into the audience.

I await the advent of the piano metal years in pop music. Though, however promising the possibilities, I suspect we'll see Godot before it happens.

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