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Fall 2009

On the Piano

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Mark Morris

The Piano as Furniture. There is a piano in every studio in my building. I don’t let anyone put anything on it.
When I was a teen, I bought an old and ornate upright piano with my own seventy-five dollars. It was painted a sort of grey. I put screws and pieces of paper and pencils between the strings. I invented the prepared piano. So did John Cage—first. I never played well at all but I spent hours each day practicing and improvising New Music. Satie wrote Furniture Music.

The Piano as Orchestra. I almost never use recorded music in rehearsal or performance. There is a pianist who plays all day for me and my company. We have learned how to hear whatever we need within the sound of the piano. My dancers learn the music measure by measure as we put a dance together. We’ve all become expert at imagining instrumentation.
Although I do choreograph to music composed for the piano, I spend more of my time listening to a piano reduction: a solo piano realization of an orchestral score. Very often I end up liking the sound of the piano version even more than the actual instrumentation. Busoni and Liszt wrote piano reductions.

The Piano as Machine. Though the piano sounds like a melody instrument, it is, in actuality, a rhythm machine. The mechanism is a Goldbergian fantasy (Rube, not Bach): depress a key and the energy is transmitted almost instantly, resulting in a felt hammer tapping strings to produce sound. It is percussion that makes the impossibly rich and varied effects. That’s why it is so entertaining to see pianists wiggle their fingers on the keys in an attempt to create vibrato, as you would on a cello. It just doesn’t work. Reich and Harrison wrote piano as percussion.

The Piano as Miracle. J. S. Bach, through the advent of Equal Temper-ament (it’s a long story), both revolutionized and ruined music. Gone are the subtleties of the modes and the key relations. Gained is the Esperanto effect of all instruments being able to unite with the piano in every key. The shocking sonorities of Beethoven, Debussy, Ligeti take place on the same keyboard as the wide-open clarities of Mozart, Satie, Cage. The sound of decay as a chord dies out always thrills me. I hear a sharpening of pitch as the overtones resonate up and away.
Bach, Chopin, and Messiaen wrote miracles.

The Piano as Memory. Not so long ago every home held a piano and everybody could play one. The Amateur is gone. Only the Virtuoso remains. Too bad.

Mark Morris, director and choreographer, is the founder and artistic director of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

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