When Alexis Taylor, member of British Synth-Pop band Hot Chip, releases an album called Pianos, and it’s just him and a piano singing sugary sweet tunes like “Crying in the Chapel” and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” something doesn’t feel right. Going from beat steady dance music he plays with his band, to the free floating (in his words) “atheist’s gospel album” seems like such a leap that it’s almost shocking that they came from the same person, until naturally I thought of the importance of the keyboard.
The Theremin is probably the first electronic instrument most people have had some contact with. It features prominently on the Beach Boy’s masterpiece “Good Vibrations” (it’s the thing that’s playing the key motif at the end of the song), but it’s also the go-to instrument for creepy Halloween cartoon music. I bring it up mainly to focus on the point that it had no keyboard. It was played by moving your hands closer or further to proximity sensors. The vibrato could be achieved by shaking your hand. This prohibited many people from playing it, as it would mean learning a whole new instrument. Luckily there was the keyboard.
In the early 1960s, Moog was creating a true synth that would feature a keyboard as the playing surface. The Moog was the true synthesizer heir to the Theremin, and with it came an interest in synthesizers. Hot Chip, in the early 2000s, was the result of years of interest in synthesized instruments, going through Wendy Carlos and New Order and Nine Inch Nails on one side, the House, Electropop, and Techno of the eighties and nineties on the other. What all these genres and bands have in common is that at least one person knows how to work a Piano.
Some people take lessons when they’re young, some are self-taught, but the Piano remains one of the most popular instruments in the 21st century. Chuck Klosterman figures the instrument in his rough definition of Rock & Roll. For an instrument devised before the American Revolution, it shows incredible staying power.
The Piano was not the first instrument to feature a keyboard. The Harpsichord came earlier, but it had one major drawback—it could only be played at one volume. The Piano then is a revolution unto itself. Piano is actually slang for Pianoforte, which means Soft/Loud, a literal description of what it could do. For the first time nuance was a feature of the keyboard, and it’s been an instrument we’ve loved ever since. From Mozart’s Piano Concertos to “Great Balls of Fire,” it has come to encompass all styles of music, and at least in the western world, the instrument represents music itself.
So Alexis Taylor is saying a lot when he releases an album of just him and his Piano. There’s a full history contained in the jump between the electro-pop of Hot Chip and the gentle music of Pianos. The title itself, whether intentional or not, describes the content of the album: soft. Its gentle, tender music that feels like the family musician sitting at the upright in the living room of his home, playing not for the extended family, but himself. Pianos is the private music of the man who makes a living composing and playing Forte.
Article: Christopher Gilson