The Piano Lesson

Matisse’s Piano Lesson, 1916 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).  It depicts the painting Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal), 1914, also at MoMA, and a number of other works.  Matisse’s son Pierre, the student , was actually sixteen at the time of the painting, but this, like much of Matisse’s work, looks back, not to a “slice of time”, a single moment, but to something about a space and an instrument and at least two people and possibly quite a lot of time, to relationships that are personal, but not just personal. It is silent. And perhaps the silence of what Flusser calls a traditional image, imposed by the painter on the materials, is heightened if the cause of the painting — a cause in the painter’s mind — does involve sound.

A Plague of Piano Lessons

Friedrich Kittler’s books construct a firmly material foundation below the idea of discourse as Michel Foucault framed it: the conventions and boundaries of what can be said at any given time. These are the shifts, he says, that constitute historical change.  Taking over Foucault’s broad timeframe (one such shift about 1800, another about 1900), Kittler examines the impact of Grammophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press) on 19th-century European discourse. In his account the typewriter’s impact on social relationships, Kittler quotes from a book by two economists writing in 1895:  

…it may come as a surprise to find a practical use for what has become a veritable plague across the country, namely, piano lessons for young girls: the resultant dexterity is very useful for the operation of  the typewriter.  Rapid typing on it can be achieved only through the dexterous use of all fingers. If this profession is not yet as lucrative in Germany as it is in America, it is due to the infiltration of elements who perform the job of typist mechanically, without any additional skills.

Julius Mayer and Josef Silbermann, Die Frau im Handel und Gewerbe, Der Existenzkampf der Frau im modernen Leben.  Seine Ziele und Aussichten [Women in Business and Industry. Women’s Struggle for Existence in Modern Life. Her Goals and Prospects] 7, Berlin, 1895, 264.

Keyboard as a Graphic User Interface

Usually abbreviated as GUI, it’s the term for physical shape, size, color and arrangement of the physical controls that put a human being in control of an industrial product. Designers of “personal technology” devices, perhaps game designers in particular, think about it a lot because it can spell the difference between a device that becomes easy and familiar — in short, a device one can play with — and one that’s a constant frustration.

The piano keyboard is an early and astonishingly successful example of an interface that expresses, or better, materialises an idea about sound. It also incorporates a sensitive and intelligent definition of “average” adult human hands — and ears and brains.

Our Parents’ Dreams

Piano Lesson Mihály Munkácsy, Oil on panel, c. 1900.

“We must awaken from our parents’ dreams” is the way I remember the passage from Benjamin, from the Arcades Project. It’s not exactly right. A related one, “Each epoch dreams the one that follows” covers some of the same ground. But I think my mother dreamed of her daughter playing the piano. The dream was visual, not acoustic.

I didn’t dream it. I analyzed, memorised, practiced, sorted out fingering and fought the gnawing suspicion that no one was listening. Even now I don’t think anyone was listening. Maybe Dad, occasionally. Mother was looking. The image reproduced here could be mother’s dream, an image I could never have seen when I was seven or eight. Now I can.