The piano is an extraordinary piece of technology that transformed European, then the world’s culture. Its original name, the pianoforte—literally “quiet-loud” in Italian—explains exactly why it was different. In its predecessor the harpsichord, pressing on keys caused a string to be plucked, always at the same volume; whereas the pianoforte caused a hammer to strike the string, which allowed a variety of tone and volume depending on how the player hit the key.
This, maybe more than any other single thing, drove the move from the regimented compositions of the baroque era to high classical music in the second half of the 18th century. As the piano’s technology developed to make it louder, more expressive and (no pun intended) grander, it eventually culminated in the full-blown romanticism of the 19th century.
Once mass production allowed it, the piano reached every corner of the modern world. It remained, essentially, unchanged. It was there when the excess brass band instruments from the marching bands of the American Civil War, offloaded into pawn shops in New Orleans for drink and carousing by demob-happy soldiers, allowed the birth of jazz. And it could be found in gospel churches that certainly couldn’t afford organs, and in pubs, shebeens and speakeasies around the world.
The piano is unmissable in honky-tonk and boogie-woogie, and the birth of soul and rock’n’roll. Where the guitar was fundamentally transformed in the ‘50s and ‘60s with distortion and other effects, a piano was still a piano—yet it was consistently versatile. In the ‘70s it managed to signal both dumb fun in glam rock and grown-up seriousness thanks to Carole King, Joni Mitchell and all who followed.
It may have been made synthetic in the power ballads of the ‘80s or the rave rushes of the ‘90s, but nonetheless, it was the same sound. And so, in the post-postmodern 21st century where all the sounds of the past are simultaneously omnipresent, so has been the piano. And as cultural information overload has become more of a problem, interestingly it’s often been to the piano on its own that people return for solace.
Right across popular culture, from the deepest soul to the lightest of easy listening ripples, the flourishes of solo piano have always been associated with lyricism and introspection. Meanwhile in “higher” culture, minimalist composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Charlemagne Palestine created a more austere, meditational language of repetition for the instrument. And the unique, understated “furniture music” of Erik Satie has also gently echoed through the past 100 years.
All of this has converged, via deep listening habits that come from the ambient and electronica worlds, into a very specific place for piano arpeggios in the world today. As we noted when we made our “But Is It Classical?” playlist, there is a very specific sort of piano minimalism that reaches really quite gigantic audiences now. It has made huge stars of the likes of Nils Frahm and Max Richter, but also disseminated into an absolute flood of tinkling repetitions on “relaxed” playlists so generic that it could have been generated by algorithm (and in many cases almost certainly is).
The thing about minimalist music is that the gentler it gets, the harder it becomes to find a clear divide between vacuousness and brilliant subtlety. However, on the occasion of the announcement of James Heather’s new album Invisible Forces, we’d just like to remind you that among the current glut of tinkles and plonks are works that linger in the air like subtle perfumes or candlelit shadows.
If you want music to work to, music to switch off to, to meditate to, the work of Heather—for many years a member of staff at Ninja Tune Records before revealing his secret pianist alter-ego—is something special. As well as ordering the new record, do dig into his catalogue, or discover the works of Turkish prodigy Büşra Kayıkçı who often records alone in her own Istanbul apartment, or explore the catalogue of the extraordinary Sylvain Chauveau, who since 2000 has been perhaps the greatest pioneer of this most restrained use of this most remarkable instrument.
Over 300 years since its invention and barely changed in its basic mechanics, the pianoforte is still shaping culture, its distinctive and unadorned sound still firmly at the centre of some of the defining musical forms of today. How many other pieces of technology can say the same?
Cover Credit: Ozge Cone
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.