Has the Piano been Drinking?

There’s an old joke. A man clearing out his attic comes across an oil painting and a dusty violin. He takes them to an antiques dealer who tells him he has good news and bad news. The good news is that the man has found a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. The bad news? Stradivarius never really made it as a painter. Jokes aside, it is quite remarkable the number of great artistic minds who actually did have a semi-successful secondary outlet: Dickens was a passionate amateur actor, Michelangelo wrote sonnets when he wasn’t painting ceilings. Hector Berlioz, too, if you will excuse the pun, had a second string to his bow, publishing in 1852 a collection of short stories, anecdotes, romances, squibs, critiques, and discussions under the title Evenings with the Orchestra, a musicians’ version of The Decameron in which the players in a sub-par ensemble swap tales to dispel their boredom with the awful opera performances they are accompanying. Their range is quite broad, and among the most curious is one of the stories told on the eighteenth evening, the tale of the mad piano.



 Hector Berlioz, 1803-1869

The story goes that a competition was mounted at a conservatory between piano students, 31 in all. The piece chosen for the audition was Mendelssohn’s Concerto in G minor, to be played upon a superb new piano, loaned for the occasion by one M. Érard. The keyboard action was a little stiff, he thought, but he was confident that 31 students pounding out the concerto would liven it up. He was, as it turned out, quite correct.

As the students each come forward to perform the concerto, the action of the piano gradually becomes less stiff, until the later entrants begin to complain that the action is in fact too soft. By the 26th performer, everyone maintained that the keyboard barely needed to be touched to make it sound, and as the 29th rendition is about to commence, the keys are seen to begin going down all by themselves. After number 30 boldly plays the concerto and leaves his seat, the piano begins the concerto all over again by itself, then continues to play louder and louder, turning out scales, trills, and arpeggios.

Érard is summoned to see if he can control the instrument, which he cannot, remarking that it is out of its mind. The only apparent solution is to remove the keyboard, which nonetheless continues to move up and down, at which point Érard is overcome with fury and chops it up with an axe. This only makes matters worse; each piece dances, jumps, and frisks about separately on the ground until they are finally gathered up and flung into the fire.

The story itself is, speaking structurally, a fairly typical piece of nineteenth century fabulism, but what is interesting is the stress Berlioz places upon the events being the logical issue of the treatment of the instrument. At one point, the piano is sprinkled with holy water to no avail, proof, Berlioz contends, that there are no supernatural forces at work, only the ‘natural result’. ‘After all,’ he asks, ‘how can a piano hear a concerto thirty times in the same hall on the same day without contracting the habit of it?’

The anxieties being rehearsed in the ‘Eighteenth Evening’, I think, may have their analogue in the digital age. Berlioz long predates the advent of even our being able to conceptualise artificial intelligence, but he does ascribe the capacity for sensitivity to a mechanical device. He chooses not a cold inhuman mill or some dizzying complex clockwork, but rather a musical instrument, a device designed to amplify the nuances of human touch, from whence it is a shorter step to imagine that the tasks to which it is subjected might cause it to learn, to acquire independence, and finally to exercise its own will. Without suggesting this obscure little tale to be anything like an influence, can we not see the same plot unfold throughout contemporary science fiction? It is the premise of the Terminator series, of Battlestar Galactica. But what is it about the prospect of animate machines that we find so uncanny? If we return to Berlioz for a moment, one possibility presents itself. Berlioz was of course a performance-trained musician. Many, if not most, of his waking hours must have been consumed at various points in his life by the same mechanical repetition against which the piano revolts – the endless drilling of scales, the agonising process of perfecting arpeggios. I wonder whether one might argue that what we fear is not so much the birth of a mechanical intelligence in the modern world, but the mechanised modernity that slowly brings about the death of our own.

--Melissa Dickson