The Most Mod Con

Glory days for the piano

The Most Mod Con

Has the affection for the piano in the home sustained – or is it now a piece of technology to be superseded?

At a certain point in the 1980s, in the BBC Four television programme Electric Dreams, the piano in the front room disappeared. No explanation. No comment. Some people may find that hard to accept. I know I do.

The series, broadcast in autumn, explored how technological developments transformed British homes in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, bringing the Sullivan-Barnes family through the decades year by year. Each ‘year’, the ‘Tech Team’ would leave a parcel at the family’s door containing the latest technology, though unlike in the actual 70s and 80s they received devices that a middle-class family of the time could not have actually afforded when it first appeared. Nonetheless, the impact that the technology had on their lives was very real.

Over the three programmes, a decade for each, the most striking change – and it did not go unnoticed by the family – was how in the 70s and early-80s household they were much more likely to engage with each other, to talk as a group and to entertain each other as a family. As the technology developed, particularly from the mid-1980s onwards, but especially in the 1990s – when the rate of parcels appearing at their door increased dramatically – they slowly retreated into their own, private worlds – the teenager on a computer game, the youngest child watching a video, the daughter listening to her stereo, mother on her computer, father on his mobile phone. No longer compelled to agree on a shared form of entertainment – a television programme, a board game – they could simply step away into a world of their own.

Georgie, the mother, found this particularly disquieting, but struggled to see any way around its inevitability. She recognised that they were coming closer to the cluttered, technology-absorbed lives they had left behind in 2009. The father, Adam, embraced the technology, almost audibly sighing when it arrived. The children welcomed it too, and had a renewed appreciation of the extraordinary technology of their own era. In one particularly illustrative moment, after the introduction of email into the house, Georgie, despite her successive concerns about the growing disconnection of the family, can be seen sitting on her bed alone in her room at dinner time, working on her laptop.

A home of several private entertainment bubbles among a family may seem undesirable, but is there any difference between this and being separately tucked into a good book, or having separate hobbies? Clearly Georgie felt so. It seems the type of technology had changed something. There are well-rehearsed anxieties that come from video-game, television and internet access for children, but what I suspect really worried the mother was that the new technologies seem to have squeezed out the idle moments where there was the potential for something else. A book ends. So does a television programme, as does a video. And then maybe something else will happen in the home. Children will wander, discover new things, play outside, make conversation, and so on. However, the internet, emailing, the ability to record and replay television, the amount of music on an iPod, and many other new forms of entertainment, don’t have any real limits, in terms of either time or space, and the convenience of using them means they are likely to be used over and over. A mobile phone with email or internet capacity, for example, can fill any single lull in the day – waiting for the kettle to boil, sitting at the traffic lights, even sitting on the toilet. Children can watch hours of unbroken cartoons. Because technology has become so convenient and personalised – our entire world is reflected in it, and much of the detail of our lives exist only within it – we naturally give it more time. Even with Sullivan-Barnes parental control, the new technology was like water slipping through their hands. This was Georgie’s dilemma.

There is one piece of technology that featured in Electric Dreams which is not new, but which does, in many ways, match much of the modern technology that Georgie fears, and yet it does not overstep its mark. It is always on, can accommodate a quick thirty-second fix or hours of deep engagement, and can be pursued as an entirely solitary endeavour or as a group activity. But let’s see how it fared in Electric Dreams

Throughout the 1970s episode and into the 1980s, a brown, upright piano sat in the living room. Nobody in the house played it, or indeed any instrument that I saw, but it obviously suited the period. Then, some time around 1983 – when the Tech Team introduced an electric keyboard into the house, complete with members of the 1980s band Ultravox to show them how to use it – they quietly took away the upright. Nobody could play the electric keyboard either, and actually, the only piece of technology that generated any music-making in the house was a karaoke machine produced for a millennium party to finish the series!

Replacing the piano with the electric keyboard was obviously a neat, telly-friendly way of demonstrating change, and perhaps from a historical perspective was relatively accurate too – the piano in the home has, after all, been in continual decline since record players were first introduced into people’s lives in the first half of the twentieth century. But it was this demotion of the piano to just another piece of technology that could be superseded that saddened me slightly when I watched it. I wondered was this another one of the reasons why pianos in the hall or the front room are becoming less and less common. I can understand the prohibitive cost, the difficulty in finding space, the necessity of having patient neighbours, and the fact that not everyone wants to play, but had assumed that the affection for the piano as something culturally valuable in a home had sustained – or has it?

There are clues in any modern suburban estate. Enter into a newly-built semi-detached house and the picture of the modern family that the architect has in mind is illuminating. These homes are built for watching television in. The vision that they have of music-making in this environment is something private and enclosed – earphones, laptop, leads, iPod, bedroom door shut. A piano, however, is intrusive, overwhelming, loud, and at the centre of the house. How can such an unwieldy instrument find a place in the home of this new century?

The case for the piano is strong, if complicated. Even when a piano is not being played – and we all know most suffer that ignominy, being picture-holding, dust-gathering, key-sticking instruments that are parked in the corner – it still does something to a home. It supplies exactly what Georgie felt she was losing: the potential for something else – in the piano’s case, the potential for music.

That potential can sustain for decades, for a piano’s greatest advantage is that it is difficult to dispose of, or even move. Over many years, for everyone, child or adult, who passes by, a piano can serve the same purpose as new technological devices today, filling in the gaps, the idle moments and the boredom, providing an instant private world for its player, realising potential, pointing talent and creativity in a new direction. Its musicality reaches out to the members of a household: even casual, untrained tinkering can elicit something thoughtful and beautiful. It provides a certain permanence in a home, a continuity throughout a family’s life. The movement of a piano out of a home, or into it, often signifies deep change in a household, perhaps the arrival of a new generation, or the passing of an older one. Because of its size and weight, but also its home-making quality, having a piano possibly extends any decision to move home by several months, if it doesn’t fix you in the one place permanently.

Either the removal of the piano from the Sullivan-Barnes house was pure televisual expediency, or it reflects the notion that
the affection for the piano is waning. After I left home, and my mother decided to dispose of our piano – in fairness, it really had had its day – I decided to make a plea for it, plaintively pointing to my sister’s new baby son, and saying: what if he grows up and wants to play? Alas, the piano was disassembled and removed, although, as if to insist on its importance, pieces of it – some of the keys and the brass pedals – still remain in our lives.

Ironically, my nephew did grow up and start to play, firstly on an electronic keyboard, and showing promise, my sister recently purchased a piano for him. I visited her house recently, and there against the wall stood a new upright piano which had somehow carved a space out for itself in a busy, twenty-first century home. The pride that the family felt for the lustrous black instrument was palpable. A piece of technology? Something to be superseded? This was potentially the beginning of generations of music, and always, even if there are months or years when it is not being played, there will be the potential for music.

My sister had been talking about moving home for a while beforehand. I haven’t heard her talk like that of late. 

Published on 1 December 2009

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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