Invent a new gadget for the automobile or record player and everyone wants to own the newest model. Introduce a new musical instrument in the popular field and it is likely to become the rage within a few months, if not weeks. Create a new instrument for classical music, and you are bound to come up against a chorus of skeptics.
This response came to the fore a short while ago when the electronic concert-grand piano, conceived by Dr. Hugo Benioff, was unveiled. the larger share of attention both claimed and elicited was based on its volume of sound. Much was made of its capacity to be heard over an orchestra of 100 blaring away in a concert hall or in an enormous open space like the Hollywood Bowl. By concentrating on volume rather than the aesthetic aspects, the instrument received a near death sentence before the trial.
Loudness in performance is, in my opinion, only a practical factor; it is not an artistic consideration. The capacity to blow up volume is merely a secondary accessory to this instrument — an accessory which need hardly be discussed if we consider that a microphone attached to any piano could accomplish as much.
As a Professor at the Institute of Technology at Pasadena and regarded as the Dean of the world's seismologists, the late Benioff (he died over a year ago) was too great a scientist to devote twenty years of his life to developing simply a louder piano. As a performer, especially of the music of Bach, who was privileged not only to be his friend but also to experiment with him on every new phase in the piano's development, I also have no interest in so crude an idea as loudness of sound.
Benioff did not intend to create the electronic piano as a gimmick or a fad, but to give us a superior instrument with new potentials in the fields of performing and composing. I believe he has succeeded in his goal.
Benioff began to work at all sorts of electronic musical instruments around 1942. (The only instrument he refused to create was an electronic Chinese gong, which Leopold Stokowski proposed as a commission.) It was at that time that we first met, and I became acquainted with the electronic piano almost at its birth when it had only one key – middle C. Through more than twenty years I was privy to his problems of tone qualities and keyboard action, his varied experiments and solutions, and time and again I was his guinea pig by playing every conceivable kind of music on this instrument. He would continually test his results by comparing them to the sounds of a regular concert grant, making his goal the recreation of the most beautiful and varied piano tone and the most sensitive action. He aimed to increase the overtones in the treble and the fundamental in the bass in order to develop richer sonorities in those two areas. He believed that, among other musical advantages, this added capacity would facilitate the recording of the piano tone which has been considered the most difficult to capture on disks, short of that of the organ.
In its finished state, the piano looks like a traditional grand. It utilizes the regular strings, but does away with the sounding board. The tone is produced by the string vibrations being picked by by Ferroelectric cantilever transducers and being projected as tones through speakers within the instrument. This piano will need less tuning than the ordinary one.
Much more important, however, and what should fascinate musicians and music lovers, is the piano's singing and mellow tone and the minimization of percussiveness. A legato line is more readily achieved without the benefit of the pedal, and yet the damping of the tones — so important for clarity — is as prompt as that of the traditional piano. It is an instrument for which composers may one again write in a fresh pianistic idiom whether or not they wish to treat it as a pure percussion instrument as has often been the case in our time, for it has the capacity of new kinds of tonal relationships as well as old ones.
The mention of Bach and the electric piano is likely to be considered heresy by many, in view of the fact that the instruments of Bach's time were not electronic — the non-electric organ, the harpsichord with its plucked action and the clavichord with its singing tone. In the case of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, we have accepted a change in the tone and volume of our major keyboard instrument. It has, in fact, become for us a measure of the performer's genius how well he can recreate the particular aural ambiance of the composer's time. And yet we tend to relegate the most timeless and universal of all composers, Bach, to the museum, or to the revival of instruments which beautiful in themselves cannot fit into our large halls and into our modern ways of music-making. the harpsichord can rarely be heard without amplification in a hall [seating] over 700-800. Moreover, even in this size hall, the delicate changes of registration which produce differences of tonal color and volume are lost. In addition, the volume and type of sounds assailing modern ears destroy a kind of sensitivity and sensibility which ears knowing only natural, unmechanical, sounds retain. The tone of the clavichord is infinitesimal, even in relation to that of the harpsichord, and is meant for performance in a room. it can barely be heard at all in a small hall seating over 100-200. Although the harpsichord has been useful to us in concert performances due to amplification, the clavichord is lost to concert audiences. Because I play Bach on the piano, harpsichord and clavichord, I find the possibilities of the electronic piano particularly interesting. It is time that the controversy relax over historical and contemporary instruments and styles, as it did in the case of Shakespeare performance, within our own time. With the best intent and information regarding performance practices, the world “waits for no man” and no one can check the progress of new ideas and sensibilities, even within a historical framework.
In trying to find the proper answers to the performing habits — and the selection of the proper instrument is part of this — it is often wisest to turn to a living composer. I once asked William Schuman, “Let us suppose that two centuries hence your music is being played as often as Bach is being performed today. We must face the fact that instruments will be different 200 years from now. What would your wish be? Would you demand that your music be performed on instruments of that era or on reconstructed instruments of your time?” His answer was unequivocal: “But, of course, I would hope that they would play my music on their own instruments, because if music is not played on contemporary ones, a composer is dead.”
The greatest danger with the electronic piano is that the word “electronic”, as applied to a musical instrument, will frighten us into nonaction. Approaching the sunset years of the electronic 20th century, we should be knowledgeable enough by this time to accept it.