Guest post by Michael Johnson

Let’s face it. Except for the lucky few who have the gift, young students struggling to coax music out of a piano are in for a world of pain. Most of them just suffer in silence, and so do their families in the next room, as sharps become flats, allegro becomes lento, everything is hammered to death, and Mozart rolls over in his grave.

But in the past few years, a strange ritual has taken root in our so-called civilization – a safety valve for those who crack under the strain of music’s harsh discipline. It is called “piano destruction” and it is more than a diversion for vandals.

This is different from performance art, in which pianos have been abused for decades by artists seeking to shock. A Swedish pianist, the late Karl-Erik Welin, took a chainsaw to his piano and composed a piece he calls “Esservecchia” calling for strong fist blows to the keyboard and strings.

The occasional comic take on piano destruction survives on film, such as Harpo Marx and his version of “Wreckmaninov”.

But now young piano students sometimes go mad, jumping on the keys, smashing the soundboard, torching the instrument, raking the strings with garden tools – and capturing it all on video

Is this really porn? At least it is an act offensive to public morality, so I call it “pure piano porn”.

Fine instruments produced by piano craftsmen are transformed into bonfires, torn to pieces by heavy construction equipment, exploded with TNT, pushed off cliffs and tipped over the edge of tall buildings.

Raphael Montanez Ortiz attacks a grand piano with an axe as part of a piece of performance art

Admittedly some ageing pianos are so worn out that they cannot be tuned, and there comes a time to drag them to the knackers yard like an old horse. What makes the practice obscene is the glee with which the demolishers attack the doomed instrument.

A search of the web reveals dozens of amateur piano-bashers at work under the heading “piano destruction”. The best compilation I have found is a link called “25 ways to kill a piano”, accessible here.

Not everyone can find enjoyment from these wanton acts of devastation. Music lovers cringe at the sight of them and scratch their heads. Piano tuners and piano builders weep.

And yet, men and women, boys and girls, will rush at a piano with an axe or hammer or iron bar if motivated by their desperation. The more ambitious of them go to the woods and plant explosives inside. Much merriment – diabolical laughter, actually — is associated with these events.

Occasionally a truly accomplished player takes out his frustration on the instrument. Recently in France, François-René Duchâble, during a pause in his career, recalled his personal act of vengeance. He says he liberated himself from an overly demanding career by dropping the wooden case of his grand piano from a helicopter into Lake Mercantour, in the French Alps, and never saw it again.

He branded the piano “an arrogant instrument which excludes all those that don’t know about music.”

People thought this was a desperate move,” he recalled. “In fact it was a liberation. An act of purification.” And he told a reporter, “I have had enough of sacrificing my life for one percent of the population. I have had enough of participating in a musical system, which, in France at least, functions badly and limits classical music to an elite.”

Thus he brought to a close three decades as a concert pianist and recording star, “a life I detested”, he said. At a stroke, the helicopter stunt had put an end to everything that was weighing him down – “the travel, the rehearsals, the recording sessions in which one is a mere student of the producer in the studio.” He hated taking direction from record producers and he likened his road trips to traveling around in a hearse.

Duchâble’s works are still on the market. His performances of all the standard repertoire of Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Grieg, are easy to find. He feels his entire life was ruined by his career. “I have a few good memories, a few successes, but not much,” he recalled. “I spent 30 years regretting I had this talent which prevented me from having a life,” he recalled. Finally, he snapped.

Until his recent retirement, he was saying he felt “reborn”, performing for children or the sick, or pedaling around seaside resorts with a keyboard mounted on a specially built tricycle, attracting crowds of old and young with his mobile arpeggios and snatches of Chopin.

The more common piano-bashers seem to be amateurs who arrive on the dreaded “plateau” of learning during which nothing seems to move forward despite intense practicing. Clips of piano destruction on YouTube are enlivened with viewer comments, such as: “Wow he must have had a terrible teacher.”

Yes, piano pedagogues have much to answer for.

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist


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