Many people I know, myself included, have their lives dominated by splintered, fractured attention. Half way through an email, another one arrives. A popup, a sound, a line of text in the notification bar. An SMS. The doorbell. A phonecall. Another email.
Don’t forget Berners-Lee. That swine basically invented distraction. The wonder that is the hyperlink is also the most divisive, attention-splitting rabbit hole digger there is. What started as a simple page of text is now a gateway into the warren of the web. Those little underlined moments, they suck you in.
I’ll come back to that in a minute. Let’s talk about pianos instead.
The piano as we know it was invented in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s. By then, things like dulcimers, harpischords and clavichords had been on the scene for a while. The clavichord was expressive but too quiet; the harpsichord loud but without any dynamic range. The piano needed to do something special which these previous instruments didn’t, and innovation took a while to catch up.
In a piano, each note is hit by a hammer (as we all remember from school this makes it a percussion instrument rather than a stringed one), and this hammer can’t stay on the string after it hits it. If it did, the note would damp - stop - immediately.
Around about 1700 or thereabouts a man called Cristofori developed the innovation that was needed - the action of the piano - a mechanism which meant that the hammer could hit the string and then rapidly retreat, leaving the note to play.
The resulting instrument was much louder than the clavichord, but gave the player the means to alter the dynamics extremely finely. The "soft-loud" nature of the resulting dynamic range echoes in the name, pianoforte, which later became shortened to "piano".
The modern day piano has evolved a fair bit, but the essential mechanism is the same. A key is pressed and (almost) simultaneously a damper is lifted from the string as a hammer strikes the individual note. The hammer leaves the string immediately - but while the key is kept pressed down, the damper stays off the string and the note sustains. Once the key is released, the damper comes back onto the string and the note is stopped.
As well as the action there are typically two pedals on most pianos as well. On an upright piano, the soft, left pedal brings the whole action closer to the strings so that the hammers don’t hit quite so hard. On a grand piano - where there is typically more than one string per note, this pedal moves the whole action so that less strings are hit by an individual hammer. The effect is similar in both - a quieter, mellower sound. The right hand pedal (the “loud” or “sustain” pedal) lifts all the dampers from the strings and allows them to ring free, even when the keys are lifted.
This subtle but incredible brilliance - the technical interplay between the strings, dampers, hammers, pedals and keys - is what lies at the heart of the extraordinary dynamic range that can be found in this instrument. When you next see a piano, open up the front (maybe ask its owner first..), play a bit, and watch how everything meshes together - sometimes up to 12,000 moving parts in a single piano.
I’m lucky enough to own three pianos; my wife is lucky enough that I don’t keep them all in one place. Each one has a distinct personality: my gran’s old brown upright is out of tune but wonderfully characterful, and forms the backdrop to recent recordings we’re making in our band. The second one is a Fleschner, a big, funereal number - dark black wood, scratched to hell, but a wonderful, forceful, expressive piano. The final one - my be-all-and-end-all piano - is a Broadwood, a beautifully resonant brown baby grand which was handed down to me twenty something years ago by my grandfather. She’s suffering, the Broadwood - she only just moved here as we finally find ourselves in a house big enough for her to fit. As a consequence she needs a good tuning, and possibly some other minor tweaks, but she’s a stunning, wonderful thing.
I’m not as good as I once was, but I never stopped playing - not once since I started age 5. I’m going to take my Grade VIII again before the end of the year, more than twenty years after I did it the first time. There are 160 bloody scales, not to mention impossibly hard finger-twisting pieces, sight reading, aural tests and the rest. This shit is hard work - mentally and physically.
But then often I like to just sit down and improvise, hold down the sustain pedal and hear notes echoing magically around the body of this incredible instrument for what seems like minutes on end. And in the middle of a seemingly impossible series of note changes it becomes very clear that this isn’t always a conscious connection. My fingers - like a programmers, or a typists - are moving on their own, perhaps driven by mechanical memory rather than anything else, or maybe it’s just instinct, or plain luck.
This (I realise now after years of doing it and not knowing) is my flow activity - the thing I lose myself in, sometimes for hours on end. That unfeasibly complicated mechanism, the moving parts, the body of this enormous great thing which I seem to be controlling somehow - this is my antidote to the inbox of doom, the client email, the Twitter mention, the late project. It is constant, a refuge, a place I can go where the noise - the mental noise - is kept to a minimum.