It’s bothering me that I keep coming back to one reason why the piano continually pulls me away from the viola:
I cannot fathom putting that much effort into something that only makes one note at a time. I’ve said this before, I know.
I love the sound of the thing. I can certainly get a 15″ instrument that would make my life easier, or a 14″ octave fiddle that would allow me to go deeper and yet play something smaller. And I adore the idea of playing something portable and more expressive.
But, there always seems to be a small part of my brain that does the doggy head-tilt when it regards these devices as simply oddball stochastically evolved machines for making one sound at a time of a particular, completely arbitrary character. And I can’t shake that conclusion, no matter how much I’d like to.
I wish I could find a full universe in a one-note-at-a-time instrument. They are smaller, lighter, and infinitely portable. They are buskable in a way that a piano isn’t — although the idea of buying a Yammie Portable Grand would make even taking a long weekend vacation infinitely more bearable for me. To be able to take a nice few days in a beach house without stewing and fidgeting for want of a piano would be glorious.
But at any rate, no matter how hard I want to shift it, that inevitable brick in the punch bowl* — that I can’t find enough interest in one note at a time — doesn’t seem to want to move. I seem to really love the abstract structure of what I’m creating almost more than the thing itself, more than the sounds. It’s more musical algebra than arithmetic, algebra being the underlying structure of arithmetic that’s left when the individual numbers are removed.
I think I’ve just got to let myself be a pianist.
I wonder what it is about single-note instruments that can attract so many people. My old viola teacher was one of those sorts — violin, viola, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, and probably a few more I’m forgetting … and he was very, very good at all of them. Really good. Clearly, there was something there for him where he was able to find a universe of structure and detail in each individual note that satisfied him. I simply cannot do that. I can’t find enough interest in the character of the sound itself to sustain me. It’s multi-voice or nothing. (The only one-note-at-a-time instrument that I think I truly do love is the voice.)
I think of music as a sort of three-dimensional tinkertoy in space (hell, I think of everything like that: music, math, languages, everything). The tinkertoy shape itself is the abstract structure of the music, revealed by the notes placed at the vertices. Pianos, because they can create gobs of notes at once, can build awesomely complex structures, revealing them by placing the pretty but relatively uncomplex mass-produced notes at the points. Single-note instruments can only place one note at a time and are hence much more limited in the complexity of the structures they can build, but those notes are the most glittering, perfectly polished jewels you can imagine, sparkling away at the vertices of that tinkertoy. I guess it depends on what you find more beautiful, the shape of the tinkertoy or the gems stuck to its vertices. For me, it’s undoubtedly the shape. I don’t anticipate that other pianists will automatically agree with me; the instrument is huge, and has many facets that can appeal to many people for all kinds of reasons.
The longer I do this, especially writing, the more I seem to regard a piano as just a big typewriter. And the beauty of the ideas written in the pages of a book doesn’t depend on the beauty of the font. You want a book to be readable and minimally attractive, with a nice font well-suited not to tire the eye but beyond that, anything else isn’t overwhelmingly necessary. A good book can certainly be an artistic item in itself, but Edgar Allan Poe’s poems are just as beautiful even if you’re reading a cheap purple mimeograph from the 1970s.
I say this with some mourning.
And let’s face it, the piano also has the unparalleled advantage of not totally effing up your body six ways from Sunday while you play it. Ergonomically, it’s a dreamland compared to almost any other instrument. That’s also a big problem with me and that damned viola as well — wanting to just settle into the sound and play something a thousand times because let’s face it, I love falling into that sort of repetitive thing for relaxation — and being defeated by the fact that I simply cannot hold my arm in that position for long enough to let that happen. With the piano, I can just sit there and go over and over and over, trying things slightly differently each time, just letting myself relax with each repetition. Single-note instruments ask so much from the body, and for such a thin broth in return. Pianos ask comparatively little, and give back so much more.
* This is a Robin Williams metaphor. Almost. Be glad I bowdlerized it. He didn’t say “brick.”