Monday, October 1, 2012

Self-Driving Cars / Selfless-Playing Pianists

I heard a fascinating panel discussion last night on NPR about the latest technological advances in self-driving automobiles.  It all seemed unreal until a caller pointed out that this entire development was dumbing down driving. 

The bells started to ring.  We have, of course, already had self-playing pianos, called player pianos.  We have also had that incredible invention that recorded onto a playing device (I believe called the Welte piano roll) the touch and technique of some of the great pianists of the early 20th century: The device, positioned in front of a piano, would reconstruct the playing of a particular piece by a particular pianist.  (These performances were recorded back in the 50's and sold by the Book-of-the-Month club, if I recall correctly.)

But now we have arrived at a different place in relation to the piano and to playing it.  A deadening uniformity of result seems to dominate thinking about the instrument.

Earlier in the evening I had taught a lesson on a Clementi scale exercise in E-flat in which I found myself marveling at the insight of a composer who could offer an opportunity within a single etude to achieve reliability, then to dare its opposite, and finally to let some mysterious synthesis of the two take over.  This is far from the conventional approach to these studies--indeed, to playing anything these days.