October 10, 2007

Key indicators

Today's starting point is this Bloomberg News report on the efforts of the French piano manufacturer Pleyel to reposition themselves as a maker of high-end concert instruments in response to Japanese and Chinese competition. The article doesn't really get into the most interesting aspect of that move, namely, keeping the traditional Pleyel sound (which, based on the last paragraph, it seems they're trying to do). The ubiquitously standard piano action and timbre of the modern world, what everything gets compared to, is that of a Steinway—a fluid, precise touch combined with a bright, penetrating sound. Pleyels historically have had a lighter touch and a much more limpid, transparent sound. The frequent combination of thick, busy textures with seemingly impossibly low dynamic levels in some pieces of Chopin or Debussy, for example, make much more sense when you know that both composers favored Pleyels.

Keeping that traditional sound is a bold move because it's the reason Pleyels have become comparatively scarce. Steinways are standard because they're engineered specifically for a consistent sound that can both fill up a big hall and cut through an orchestra. Pleyels were made primarily for smaller halls and, especially, salons, where its intimate shading could be best appreciated. The company is apparently betting that by highlighting their instruments' idiosyncratically individual timbre, they can generate enough interest to support only their highest-quality models—the article reports that they're discontinuing manufacture of uprights, presumably a higher-volume but also less marked-up product. That's a direct response to competition—the cheapest Pleyel upright has been retailing for around 7,500 Euros; a Chinese-made piano costs only one-fifth as much. But whether there's a long-tail-type niche for 100,000-Euro grand pianos is, putting it mildly, a bit of a risk.

A scaled-up Pleyel would probably put out enough sound to fill up a large space—after all, even the mighty Bösendorfer 290 Imperial, which does fine in multiple-thousand-seat houses, actually has a somewhat more delicate sound than a Steinway "D": all that bulk and those extra strings make for a deeper, more sustained tone, not a louder one. But given the premium put on rehearsal time, especially in the United States, there's the danger that getting used to a non-Steinway sound might be considered one too many adjustments for soloists and orchestras.

I hope Pleyel can make a go of it—I love the sound, myself. If I ever have piles of money, my instrument of choice will be an antique Pleyel. (Although getting such instruments into the US can be a problem: in the past, the ivory keys have run afoul of anti-poaching import restrictions. New Pleyels get around this by using, no kidding, fossilized woolly mammoth tusks.) But you can look at pianos as an object lesson in how globalization, for all its benefits, homogenizes manufacturing. The cheap instruments coming out of China and Japan tend to emulate the Steinway sound; other styles are endangered. Bechsteins, for example, are still made in Germany, for the time being, but the company is now owned by the Korean conglomerate Samick, which makes most of its instruments in Asia (they've also taken over the Knabe and Sohmer names, among others); the Bloomberg article mentions in passing that Bösendorfer is for sale, which I wasn't aware of, but would mark the third change of hands for that company in the past decade.

The question is whether it's homogenizing music as well. Has the reduction of the idea of what a piano sounds like to, for the most part, one particular timbre similarly impoverished the way composers write for the instrument? Would Chopin and Debussy have come up with the textures and harmonies they did if they were working with a modern Steinway? I can't think of another instrument that's become as one-size-fits-all as the modern concert grand.

The history of an instrument is usually presented as an evolutionary chain: viol consorts turning into the modern string section, recorders becoming transverse wooden flutes becoming their contemporary metal counterparts, and so on. It's like that classic illustration from grade-school biology textbooks showing the step-by-step genealogy of the horse. But that particular pattern—a chain of improvements leading up to a single, modern epitome—is actually something of an evolutionary failure. Truly successful biological lineages are the ones that branch out into endless variety. There's an argument to be made that the real descendant of the piano is the keyboard synthesizer, with its limitless timbral possibilities, and that the mechanical piano is just an atavism anyways. Still, I'd feel better about the family dynamic if all the siblings but one weren't hanging on by a thread.

7 comments:

Daniel Wolf said...

Matthew --

You're absolutely right about the persistent and wrong idea of the evolution of instruments. Viols and violins evolved in parallel to one another, not one from the other, and the same is true for flutes and recorders (both of which continue to develop in interesting ways).

There is a bit too much emphasis in public on the extra low strings on Boesendorfers. They are not on all models, yet all Boesendorfers share a similar sound profile. I would argue that the proportion of spruce in the instruments, the total resonating box concept, single stringing, and the screwed-on capo d'astro each play a more important role in the characteristic sound, and the action is a particularly important distinguishing feature for pianists, if only indirectly connected to the resonance of the instrument.

I grew up with a San Francisco-made Broadwood upright, still my favorite piano, and a loss of diversity in instrument construction would be a real tragedy. A disappointment to add to that tragedy is the fact that Yamaha and Kawaii, in their focus on emulating an existing style of instrument, have not taken the opportunity to design instruments with their own local flair, perhaps exploiting local materials.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Matthew, have you read Robert Philip's "Performing Music in the Age of Recordings"? He makes it quite clear that there has been a tremendous homogenization since, say, 1900 in the range of tonal qualities that is regarded as the norm for orchestral instruments. You're talking about the instruments themselves; he's talking about performance styles and sounds. Fascinating book, great read.

petemaskreplica said...

You raise some interesting questions here. To name one piece off the top of my head, Thomas Ades' Asyla includes both grand and upright pianos in its scoring, as well as a detuned upright. And of course the prepared piano represents a very deliberate attempt to get away from a "normal" piano sound. I wonder if this sort of thing might on some level represent a (sub)conscious act of rebellion against the stifling ubiquity of the Steinwayesque sound?

Elaine Fine said...

It is so nice to be reminded about the rich and varied corners of the piano family.

People in your neck of the woods (Massachusetts) who are interested in seeing and hearing the huge array of instruments you write about should visit Frederick Piano Collection in Ashburnam.

Lane Savant said...

Somewhat related.
I made a couple violins just to see what it was about. They were all awful, But one in particular was dreadful. Back; spalted, cracked scrap oak. Belly; kilndried dimentional lumber. Fir? Hemlock?
Crude carving, a fist instead of a scroll.
Everything wrong about it.
Gave it to friend who promptly started using it instead of her $5,000 one.
Said it had a real good tone.
Go figure.

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