It came and went almost without notice: a small musicale at Rockefeller University last winter that was part of a symposium called “Meet the Polymaths.” Ten amateur pianists performed favorite pieces, playing by heart for the most part, and afterwards engaged in a panel discussion on ways that music and the sciences seem to go hand in hand. The correlation is striking. It is hard to find great scientists or technologists who don’t have some flair or at least passion for music. Einstein played the violin. Artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky loves to play fugues. Claude Shannon, the recently deceased father of modern information theory, tried to make computers compose music. MIT has a terrific orchestra. Yes, MIT.Actually, the New York Times did notice the concert-where I was, incidentally, among the participants. Reviewing the event (in the paper’s science pages, naturally), Bruce Schechter hit the nail on the head by including the following anecdote.
Two of the most towering piano virtuosos of all time, Josef Hofmann and Leopold Godowsky, were schmoozing at a party. Aside from being phenomenal pianists, the pair had something else in common: both were very short in stature, with remarkably small hands to match. After reverently shaking hands with the pianists, a fan was struck by their tiny hands. “How can you great artists play the piano so magnificently with such small hands?” she asked. Godowsky (a good friend of Einstein’s) replied, “Where in the world did you get the idea that we play the piano with our hands?”
I’ll second that. Now, as it happens, my own hands are better sized for pro basketball, but I play the piano passably. My piano duet partner, Mary Farbood, has rather small hands. We’re proof that, in piano playing, size really doesn’t matter. Godowsky was right: the piano is not just a tool for the fingers. Mind and heart matter a lot more.
Like all great artistic instruments-a paintbrush, pen and ink, a violin-the piano is a tool. It is a piece of technology. It has adapted over the centuries to fit the hands beautifully, but it is primarily a tool for expressing and exploring emotions, not finger exercises. And more than any other musical instrument, the piano is a universal channel. Almost any kind of music can be adapted to it. It is an SUV for touring through a wealth of literature, an amplifier of creativity. Yet in today’s world of technological plenty-with infinite channels, disks and downloads, and with all the world’s music increasingly available with a point and a click-it is easy to lose track of what makes music making so vital and so deeply humane.
Suppose you’re in the audience at Carnegie Hall. At 8:07 p.m., the house lights dim. The stage lights brighten. The audience hushes, then bursts into a thrill of applause as a performer in concert dress strides onto the stage toward a large instrument. Bowing warmly, the soloist pulls a silvery disc out of a pocket, slips it into a slot, pushes a big red button and sits down. Everyone listens intently to a perfect recording.
This scenario is not hypothetical. Such automated “performances” are common in avant-garde computer-music circles. Progress in music certainly didn’t stop with pure, unaccompanied Gregorian chant. At clubs, deejays who spin or scratch vinyl albums are more common than live bands. There’s a vast armamentarium of technologies that mediate between performers and listeners, bridging gaps of time and space. And Glenn Gould, the reclusive pianist who famously abandoned live concerts in favor of perfection in the recording studio, might have approved. But he was an outlier. The best recording is like the memory of a kiss: something important is missing. Even in this era of MTV and the Internet, going to Carnegie Hall to hear someone play a CD seems like a pretty stale experience. It hardly compares to the thrill of watching Vladimir Horowitz or Art Tatum rip into a piano-or hearing Segovia turn a guitar into poetry. Or even watching Pete Townshend smash one. And yet, this scenario captures the difference between musical experiences of the not-so-distant past and those of today. In the 19th century, living rooms were live-music rooms. They were places where people made music. No longer.