A fate worse than rap

Sunday, 3 December 2006 — 4:27am | Music, Pianism

What’s worse than listening to a tinny Casio electronic keyboard with a MIDI-quality timbre, muddy pedal effect, miscalibrated tuning dial and spring-loaded keys that offer no tactile response whatsoever?

Answer: playing a tinny Casio electronic keyboard with a MIDI-quality timbre, muddy pedal effect, miscalibrated tuning dial and spring-loaded keys that offer no tactile response whatsoever.

There is a very good reason why I refer to myself as a pianist and not a keyboardist. In fact, I will turn down very good money in the event that someone attempts to secure me for a gig in a venue that lacks a piano. Seriously, why even bother?

Nobody can sound good on these things. In fact, when it comes to jazz harmonies, it’s likely you’ll sound outright terrible. Improvised harmonic voicings depend heavily on a habitually-developed ear for resonances, overtones and the flavours you get from the spaces and clusters associated with a given register. That’s not even accounting for pedal technique, where you are not only sustaining notes, but considering how they cohere. While there’s a whole spectrum of quality from the living-room upright to the nine-foot concert grand, the same principles apply: you are still fundamentally triggering hammers on strings, and that comes with specific tactile and aural expectations.

Yes, I am aware that there are acoustic pianists out there who somehow manage to sound incredibly good on electric instruments. They go by names like Herbie Hancock and Doug Riley, and even they use proper electric instruments that don’t pretend to be low-fat synthesized substitutes for real pianos.

I don’t care if Donovan Bailey can sprint a hundred metres in 9.84 seconds: he can’t do dick-all in a pair of Wellingtons. This is no different.

(As for the circumstance in question, I cast no blame; a booking oversight landed the choir that I accompany in an abandoned-cinema-turned-church instead of the usual haunt at Convocation Hall. I would suggest to the gallery, for future reference, that “Do you have a piano?” is an essential question when selecting a venue. If you accept budget synthesizers as a placebo, you do it at your own risk, and I take no responsibility for sounding as uneven and insipid as a Michael Ignatieff speech on the Friday night of a leadership convention.)

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