Thursday, April 12, 2007

technological dramas pt. 0: piano mobility

I came across this story (via Sequenza21/, via The Overgrown Path) of an accident while moving a Bösendorfer (‘Viennese Culture of Sound since 1828’) grand upturned 9 foot grand pianoMLM and I could not help wondering if dropping a 9 foot grand sounds like those Tex Avery cartoons. The Guardian report, tantalizingly, seems to suggest that it does:

As its [the piano’s] wooden casing splintered, it gave a death rattle described by Ms Adie [artistic director of the Two Moors Festival] as “a deafening noise like 10 honky-tonk pianos being hit by mallets”. Her husband John, the festival’s manager, said: “It made an incredible racket—like something from a cartoon.”
You don’t get images that are this overdetermined—overloaded with meaning—very often; simultaneously tragic and comic. For all its mundaneness, it’s nevertheless a fascinating story ( flags up 49 articles).
What’s happening here? The tragedy seems self-evident, the comedy is obvious, but how are the two operating together? What makes this so much more fascinating than any other dropping-a-heavy-piece-of-hardware accident? Why is it so goddamn (guiltily) funny?
And why does Tex Avery drop pianos, not pipe organs?

Perhaps no other musical instrument encapsulates the middle-class dreams as does the pianoforte. I certainly cannot think of another instrument that acts so clearly as a carrier of the desire for socio-economic mobility.
This story really has a little bit of everything: (neo-bohemian?) cultural aspiration (a startup music festival), redemption and rebirth (a regional economic initiative in response to an agricultural crisis), not at all straight forward class issues (does anyone outside rural Britain understand these dynamics?), the distant glamour of aristocracy (The Countess of Wessex), individual/familial heroism (Mr. and Mrs. Festival Organizers), Buster Keaton-esque buffoonery bordering on farce (G&R Removals: ‘the longest established piano carriers in the UK’), and a cautionary tale of cost-cutting (the instrument was not fully insured).

Incidentally, in the various articles, the Bösendorfer (‘Viennese Culture of Sound since 1828’) is alternately compared to a Stradivarius or a Rolls-Royce (‘Design without compromise’). I’ll return to these particular tropes later….

According to Bryan Pfaffenberger, technological artifacts, such as the piano, are “discusively regulated by surrounding it with symbolic media that mystify and therefore constitute… political aims” (Pfaffenberger, 1992, p. 294). If mythologies are being performed in, via, through or by the piano, let’s see if we can catch some of these semiotic fingerprints in action: let’s do a little name and marketing line survey.
  • Bösendorfer: ‘Viennese Culture of Sound since 1828’
  • Steinway & Sons: ‘For over 150 years, Steinway has made the world’s finest pianos—and inspired the artists who make them sing’
  • Yamaha: ‘Over 100 Years of Tradition and Innovation’
  • C. Bechstein: ‘C. Bechstein gives a voice to great musicians’
What is being sold here is not just the artifact; these companies are in the business of selling dreams and aspirations: they each have a brand of myth and narrative. I’m intrigued, in particular, by Steinway’s and Yamaha’s stories.Steinway bannerTake a little trip to Steinway & Sons. At the bottom of the page is a banner.the steinway collectionClick through the banner, and, via a linking page, you can get to The Steinway Collection (‘The Name Says It All’):
For over 150 years, Steinway & Sons has been dedicated to the ideal of making the finest pianos in the world. Handcrafting each Steinway requires up to one full year—creating an instrument of rare quality and global renown. Not surprisingly, Steinway remains the choice of 9 out of 10 concert artists, and countless pianists, composers, and performers around the world—a name synonymous with the highest standards.
It is in this spirit and tradition that we proudly present The Steinway Collection—Classic Casual Sportswear, available in a vibrant melody of styles and colors—and a select assortment of famous Golf Accessories. Whether you are a Steinway piano owner, professional artist, student, or enthused listener, we recommend that you experience The Steinway Collections.
The Name Says It All.
Corporate myth making doesn’t come much clearer (and less imaginative (although it hits 190 on the surrealometer)) than that.
However, who is the target for this corporate myth making? Do you believe that the Rolls-Royce (‘Design without compromise’) owning classes will purchase the $45.00 Executive Putter Set? or are these Steinway branded balls for those who aspire to be chauffeur-driven?

To be continued…


Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1992), ‘Technological Dramas’, Science, Technology, & Human Values (vol. 17, no. 3, Summer).

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