Wednesday, June 20, 2007

technological dramas pt. 1: performing ‘normal’

Continued (after delays ’caused by various reasons) from part 0

There’s a remarkable scene that closes David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in which, without giving too much away, a group of people go about the business of being a (white, heterosexual, middle-class, middle-American, nuclear) family. A classic elephant in the living room moment, the family performs normality despite pressures and stresses that have conspired to prevent it. In the most accomplished Cronenbergian fashion, the normal Hollywood trope of a ‘family overcoming despite insurmountable odds’ is given a simultaneously beautiful, almost unbearably sweet, tragic, elegiac, vaguely sinister, vaguely comic portrayal.
The thing that makes, in my mind, the scene stand out (in comparison to the multitude of similar moments in cinema) is that the characters know—are fully consciously engaged in the conspiracy—that this is performance. This pantomime act is no less real than the middle-Americana presented earlier in the movie—the earlier performances of heterosexuality, of middle-classness, of whiteness, were always already performances—but the stresses and strains have blown open the invisible markers of ‘normality’ making a return to it a deliberate and methodical process.

As I explored in part 0, Steinway & Sons’ (‘For over 150 years, Steinway has made the world’s finest pianos—and inspired the artists who make them sing’) myth is relatively straightforward, if, perhaps, at first glance bizarre in its own way. In contrast, Yamaha Pianos’ (‘Over 100 Years of Tradition and Innovation’) story, though seemingly straightforward, turns out to be a little more oblique and interesting.
Load up the ‘Piano & Digital Pianos’ page of the Yamaha Corporation of America, and you will be greeted by one of three images:three picturesWho are these characters? Why, and how, are they being enrolled into Yamaha’s narrative(s)?
Who’s that in the tux? Is that a concert pianist? A cocktail pianist? A lounge entertainer? I can’t imagine that that image is supposed to attract musicians, but perhaps it resonates with hotel owners. Who else might this image be decipherable to?
The image on the right: a woman admiring the keys while her companions chitchat and sip white wine (champagne?). This may be one possible expression of (imagined) white, middle-class normativity.
What’s depicted in that left-most image? A family, sure. A nuclear family: yes, a representation of a heterosexual ideal. A white, nuclear family. And judging from the architecture, an (upper?) middle class, white, nuclear family. In impressive shorthand, this image seems to encapsulate an idealized, hoped-for, form of identity.
Idealized in the sense that it doesn’t really matter if this image corresponds in any way to what we might find ’round here, or out there. (It doesn’t matter in the same way that the ‘real-world’ status of the ‘silent majority’ doesn’t matter; or whether Good Christian Families really hold the key to Salvation™; or whether ‘freedom’ corresponds in any way to the American Enterprise.) It’s a story, a myth, an emblem, an archetype; something that comes into existence precisely because we’re waiting for it (and, in the wings, Yamaha Pianos are waiting to help you get closer).
Idealized, also, to the point that the girl at the piano could well be Debbie—Frank Zappa’s name for the progeny of self-identified “Average, God-Fearing American White Folk” (Zappa and Occhiogrosso, 1989, p. 191).
Idealized and, to freely riff-off of Foucault, via the family unit, regulating (hetero)sexuality, and perhaps by extension, whiteness and middle-classness.

All, however, is not quite straight in Yamaha’s world for what queer things are on display here?

Not only, next door to the displays of middle-class, heterosexual normativity, is there (a respectable and unthreatening) gay representative in the form of the Elton John Limited Edition Signature Series Red Piano (‘Yamaha's First-ever Artist Signature Series Piano’), but there’s something lurking in those three images themselves: things here are playful and contradictory. Like Lynch’s suberbia, or, better yet, RoboCop’s existential schism, something lurks under the surface.
Or at least under the piano lid—have a closer look at the dashboard of the pianos: what do you see?Debbie’s parents have gifted her not with an upright, but a simulation; the dashboard on Tux’s piano reveals it to be a cybernetic hybrid; and the route to middle-class, bohemian sophistication is assisted by latter-day player pianos.

Cyborg dreams or cyborg nightmares?

To be continued…

on the other hand…

…the piano is also the instrument of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor. In African-American performances the piano can be called upon to be the emblem of self-fashioned nobility (Duke Ellington), a tool for the revolutionary (Taylor), the sexually subversive (Little Richard), the playful (Monk), the joyous (Stevie Wonder). Is it, furthermore, any coincidence that women pianists would transform the instrument so closely associated with the domestic, the private—the spheres sanctioned as feminine—into something loud and unruly? The sounds of, say, Marilyn Crispell, Myra Melford, Irène Schweitzer: un-domestic, un-private, un-bound.
…It’s no wonder that Annea Lockwood was inspired (tempted?) to drown or burn these things….


Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1992), ‘Technological Dramas’, Science, Technology, & Human Values (vol. 17, no. 3, Summer).
Zappa, Frank and Peter Occhiogrosso (1989), The Real Frank Zappa Book (New York: Poseidon Press).


peter breslin said...

Hey- Great analysis. I think the guy in the tux is Bob Saget.

There's a Thai restaurant here with a nice little baby grand in the middle of the restaurant floor that literally never gets played. It's got orchids and Buddhas on it.

It does class up the joint.

Finding a venue here that has a piano is a hard row to hoe. Pianos are no longer in residence at performance spaces. I expect this is because of portable keyboards.

I have yet to play an electric keyboard that had any life in it whatsoever, except for the Fender Rhodes.

Anyway, jazz piano is a phenomenal intersection of cultural and aesthetic values. The piano itself already had so much conventional accretion by the time Clarence Pinetop Smith or Jelly Roll Morton got their hands on it.

There's a passage in Bob Dylan's "Chronicles" where he describes a duet with Cecil Taylor, doing The Water is Wide. "Cecil could play regular piano if he wanted to..."

Anyway, I think the way Yamaha markets their pianos says a lot about the role of music in the lives of "regular, normal" people.
Yamahas have a pretty good mid register, but the low end is a mud bog and the octaves above an octave above middle C are so bright and plastic as to be painful.


the improvising guitarist said...

Hmm… Is there something about Thai restaurants and (baby) grands?

Thanks for reading!

S, tig

jinx said...

And in my current town, 57 Steinways have just arrived at the brand new conservatory. The RTE article proudly announces that this is "the single biggest order of baby grands in the 170-year-old history of the world famous Steinway company."

the improvising guitarist said...

Thanks for the link, jinx. The line that caught my eye was “made predominately from maple, each 2.08m (6'10") baby grand costs €75,000 and takes a year to build” which makes it sound like they’re talking about a cross between fine wine and a sports car…. Anyway, I’ll probably return to this in my next post in this thread.

Thanks for reading.

S, tig