Sonic Hues: The Film Reel inside a Pianist’s Head

Article by Robin Park

My nose feels minty, as if I have been running. The grass is cool under bare soles; pink and white clover flowers sprout between my toes. To the right, there are two sheep climbing a small hill in the distance. A thin layer of fog veils the horizon. I think I’m wearing a white dress, translucent like mist, but I’m unsure. It changes every time I look down.

My eyes float open. I am still sitting in front of my piano, florescent lights overhead. That was Prokofiev Concerto No.3.

The mental world of a pianist is a curious thing. To an outsider it seems she drums her fingers a few times along the black and white ridges, getting softer and louder—sometimes like shallow waves, sometimes like sudden drops on a rollercoaster. Like a ritual dance, she moves back and forth across the keys, with some unfathomable expression on her face.

There are many parts to the construction of a piece. The first is, most obviously, touch. The quality of touch determines the timbre of a note—rich and soft like molten butter or concentrated, like the strike of a hammer. The speed with which the key is pushed determines the loudness of the tone. In rhythmically fast yet soft passages, fingers still press down slowly though they move across like kicked pebbles.

It is the responsibility of the artist to use these technical skills to convey the story, a narrative hidden within the black and white splotches on a score. It differs for each piece; some may mourn a child’s premature death (Pavane pour une infante défunte by Ravel), a parting with a friend (Sonata No. 26 by Beethoven), or simply be a depiction of a cloudy English landscape (Bruyères by Debussy). The pianist is the interpreter of these pieces. There are no lyrics, no literal or visual cues, just sound.

The performer visualises the story as she plays. As fingers trail down the scale, water trickles down windows. Low and ominous, sounds of thunder rumble in the lower octaves. The sun rises as a slow, broken arpeggio moves up the keyboard. In essence, each piece is like a short film, with its portrayal of love, yearnings, passion, desire, and dejection. The pianist creates not only the soundtrack of the movie, but the movie itself. To be a good pianist is also to be an actor—she tells the story of her piece with precision and emotion, never understating or exaggerating.

As Richter put it, “Music is the poetry of the air.” It is a separate, universal language for all who have something to tell. There is no right or wrong way to interpret a piece; each is merely a framework handed to the performer to paint, in the colors she chooses. It is not only sound that is heard. It is the pungent scent of wet grass, the orange-pink color of a sunset, and the rosy perfume of an anonymous woman. It is the warmth of a cup of tea, the intensity of a Flamenco dancer, the greyness of life in solitude. In music, all senses become one.

And all who partake in it become one as well.

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