Keyboard as a Graphic User Interface

Usually abbreviated as GUI, it’s the term for physical shape, size, color and arrangement of the physical controls that put a human being in control of an industrial product. Designers of “personal technology” devices, perhaps game designers in particular, think about it a lot because it can spell the difference between a device that becomes easy and familiar — in short, a device one can play with — and one that’s a constant frustration.

The piano keyboard is an early and astonishingly successful example of an interface that expresses, or better, materialises an idea about sound. It also incorporates a sensitive and intelligent definition of “average” adult human hands — and ears and brains.

Listening and Hearing

Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) wrote about music as part of an long-term effort to develop a theory of communication. In the book Gestures (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), I translated “Die Geste des Musikhörens” as “The Gesture of Listening to Music.” The decision seemed very straightforward at the time, even though the German title quite clearly refers literally to hearing music (“listen” would be “zuhören”). Flusser defines “gesture” at all points as a movement: other essays in the series focus on, for example, writing, painting, photographing, filming, shaving, smoking. They’re active verbs. I’m still wondering in what sense listening is a movement. It definitely is active, though. You can hear something by accident — it can just happen to you. But if you’re listening, it’s intentional.

Our Parents’ Dreams

Piano Lesson Mihály Munkácsy, Oil on panel, c. 1900.

“We must awaken from our parents’ dreams” is the way I remember the passage from Benjamin, from the Arcades Project. It’s not exactly right. A related one, “Each epoch dreams the one that follows” covers some of the same ground. But I think my mother dreamed of her daughter playing the piano. The dream was visual, not acoustic.

I didn’t dream it. I analyzed, memorised, practiced, sorted out fingering and fought the gnawing suspicion that no one was listening. Even now I don’t think anyone was listening. Maybe Dad, occasionally. Mother was looking. The image reproduced here could be mother’s dream, an image I could never have seen when I was seven or eight. Now I can.

“Torn halves…”

Theodor Adorno’s often-quoted phrase about “torn halves of an integral freedom” appears in a letter to Walter Benjamin (1936). There, it refers to film. Adorno is best-known for his writing about music, a field in which he sees a chasm between products of the “culture industry,” (his term) and, broadly, popular music, and New Music, beginning with the Second Vienna School), Schönberg, Berg, Webern. And the famous phrase applies as if it were made for the purpose — which it probably was: they are “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up.”

I feel the division…and perhaps have for a very long time. There is “classical” music and “popular” music, and they are very different. But is it really always obvious which is which? Is one hard, the other easy, one satisfying, the other not? Is there ever a possility of reconciliation?

Jason Rabello Trio

I don’t often manage to hear a live musical performance — for both good and bad reasons.  But the pianist Jason Rabello, with bassist Yuri Golubev and local rhythm guy Keith Michael performed last Saturday (26th) at the Poly in Falmouth and I was in fact there.  I loved the clear assertion that the piano is a lyrical instrument, that it can sing, that it can also engage in a
close, quiet dialogue with another instrument, in this case the bass.  The drummer was on another planet, but at least remained largely unobtrusive.  In an interview with Rabello on the BBC, I learned that he was once the pianist for the rock star Sting, in the world of jets and limousine, then left to become a Buddhist monk.  I can believe all these things.  He seemed a man of conviction and consistency.

Something that sticks in memory was his introduction to a piece he “co-wrote” with Franz Schubert (audience liked that.), which I think must go by the title of Schubert’s Lied, An den Mond.  The poem is Goethe’s — involving a tragic death of a young woman. More anon — in what needs to be a reflection on song. But for now, a tribute to the man’s capacity to write a song of human experience in partnership with someone who lives on only in his written music, and to his generosity in sharing it with us, strangers.