43: The Falmouth tsunami pianos
Hello, I hope you’re well, keeping safe and warm.
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Today it’s the story of two pianos.
Please look after yourself and your people.
Melissa Jun Rowley writes for Forbes about Waorani Nation leader and activist Nemonte Nenquimo, as she fights (successfully) to protect areas of rainforest from the brutal oil giants.
I love this idea — a Science Museum github widget that shows you an item from the museum’s collection that nobody has ever seen before. I got some kind of catheter. I could’ve done with a little more background information but still, what a fabulous way to open up the collection.
Afua Hirsch writes for WeTransfer’s WePresent site, discussing the uneven distribution of doubt. It’s an augmented piece, with nice data visualisation by Gabriele Merite. Thank you Rifa for spotting this one.
A fascinating deep dive into screenwriting craft: Mike Fitzgerald compares two drafts for Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, to assess Tom Stoppard’s script amends (contributed under a pseudonym). Thank you Joel Morris for sharing this on your Facebook.
Weighty and requiring of concentration (for me, anyway) but very rewarding: Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s hour-long lecture (on YouTube) offers a feminist analysis of ‘anthropocene’. Currently I’m lost inside Tsing’s outstanding 2015 book The Mushroom At The End Of The World, her thinking is mesmerising.
Today my long-read (below) briefly mentions Falmouth University’s AMATA building. On Friday night, 29th January, from 7pm, bewitching psych/folk artist Thirty Pounds Of Bone performs a full-production livestream (it’s his first livestream and it’s free) broadcast from that same concert hall, to launch his new album. I wouldn’t normally plug something so close — but if you’ve read the long essay, keep an eye out for the pianos!
I’m ignoring the aggressively hyped return of spuds to Taco Bell, though Brighton is home to a rare UK branch of Taco Bell. But Taco Bell is some bullshit. Instead, here’s the tragic story of a pony who suffocated after being fed a whole raw potato by passers by. It’s awful, so don’t click through, unless you can cope with grief-stricken pony owners. Still, better than Taco Bell.
43: The Falmouth tsunami pianos
In the stuffy little industry of concert grand pianos, a common presumption is usually the truth: that the best pianos are the brand names you’d expect. The Steinways, or the Bösendorfers, or the Bechsteins. Experts say that Fazioli is now the Emperor — but he’s still very new in the ‘hood, he only got going in the 1980s, centuries after the rest. I’ve never played one. I have met Steinways I didn’t like (for example, at King’s Place arts centre in King’s Cross, there’s one with a dumb clumpiness that I didn’t expect, nor enjoy… swipe left) but more often I’ll meet Steinways I adore and never want to stop playing (backstage in a tiny concert hall in Lucerne, Switzerland, or at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, of all places, or Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, the list is long). Infamously, Bösendorfer got an exclusive endorsement deal with Franz Liszt back in the 1820s, simply because it was the only piano strong enough to cope with how hard he bashed at it. He’d broken all his others.
Broadly, the assumption was that a Yamaha grand piano would be a bit cheaper and — to my ears at least — would tend to have a (slight but present) thinness, even a harshness, by comparison. I don’t mean it’s a shitty piano, at all. These distinctions are all relatively subtle. But it was there. Incidentally, I also find high-end Bechsteins too bright (the very posh ones that they’ve put the C. initial on and not outsourced parts from the Czech Republic), though I’ve been firmly assured that’s just my heathen ignorance.
Anyway, it’s hard to shake off the breathless sense of ‘flounce’ or ‘strut’ you feel — a bit of historic status awe maybe — when you’re plonking away at a posh old Bösendorfer or Hamburg-made Steinway.
Despite all that, two of the loveliest pianos I’ve ever touched were the pair of newly manufactured Yamaha CF6 ‘coach house’ grands at Falmouth University. And these two pianos turned out to have a unique back story.
In 2008, Dartington College became a part of what was then UC Falmouth. In 2010 the college physically severed itself altogether from Dartington Hall, its home since being founded there in the early 1960s. The school relocated west from Devon to the far end of Cornwall, to become what is now Falmouth University. By all accounts, the divorce was fraught; controversial in the local community and acrimonious between leaderships. I’ll be careful what I write here. But allegedly one point of conflict was ownership of the concert grand pianos. At the time, I was told this sprawling anecdote about it, redolent in detail, by a taxi driver in Totnes, who said he was also a piano tuner. So that’s not exactly journalism, but enjoyable gossip amidst the chaos of separation and re-organisation; of senior figures bellowing at each-other in public, of dodgy piano vanishing tricks, in unmarked vans under cover of darkness. Alleged, alleged, alleged. I’d love to know what really transpired.
Anyway, whatever the truth of that break-up carnage, soon after the move was completed and the college was settling into its new home in the hills above Penryn in west Cornwall, the School of Music ordered a pair of brand new Yamaha CF6 grand pianos, to be delivered directly from the Japanese manufacturer.
If you go online now and buy a brand new Yamaha grand it’ll cost you something like £75,000, maybe a few thousand squid cheaper than the premiership equivalent but not to be sneered at. More importantly, as with all new grands, it won’t show up at your house next week — there is a waiting list. They don’t have piles of them lying around in hopes of a sale. You can imagine, there’s also a healthy second-hand market, so buying a brand new piano is a particular kind of decision. You’ll wait. Pianos don’t instantly lose a huge chunk of their retail value upon leaving the showroom. Your piano’s life should be long and storied.
Early Spring 2011, Yamaha had apparently finished the main construction — but not the intricate inside work — on Falmouth’s pair of ordered pianos when, on 11th March, Japan was hit by the horrifying Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, that killed many thousands of people on the north-east coast. It was the world’s fourth most powerful earthquake in recorded history. Thirty to forty metre high tsunami, covering the deep water distance from the epicentre to the coastline at over 400 miles an hour, devastated the region. The water made it as far as six miles inland in some places. People in Sendai had less than ten minutes’ notice that the waves were coming. That single earthquake moved Planet Earth at least 10cm on its axis and shifted the entire island of Honshu (Japan’s main island, itself bigger than the British mainland) almost 2.5 metres to the east.
Somehow, the Yamaha workshop holding the pianos survived. But many of the company’s master craftmakers’ lives were lost. Many more lost loved ones, were displaced with — or without — their families, the trauma was vast. As Japan grieved and began to clear up the incredible wreckage in the north-east (and as the terrifying nuclear disaster at Fukushima unfolded on that same bit of coast), the surviving piano makers returned to their waiting workshop of undamaged CF6s and began to complete their masters’ labour.
Falmouth was warned they’d need to wait longer for delivery, while a new team led by former apprentices finished the work on the pianos. The university decided to honour the order and wait it out. Just shy of a year after the original due date, the pair of CF6 grand pianos showed up.
I didn’t know this story at all, when I first encountered them. I was down to Falmouth to give a songwriting seminar and probably play a small show in the evening. Alone in the spotless rectangular AMATA lecture space that doubles as a studio-sized concert hall, I tried both pianos on the same morning. I was blown away, to the point of being actively confused as to how they were so perfect. For me, they were far warmer than how I imagine Yamaha grands, yet somehow they lost no clarity in that warmth. They were gentler, without being remotely soft. I couldn’t quite believe it and I said so, quite a bit, to anyone who’d listen. People were polite but underwhelmed by my enthusiasm. Yes, they agreed, like, they’re really good pianos. Um.
Later, a technician casually told me the origin story and why they’d been delayed. How they’d been completed by younger staff, determined to do their best by their lost craftmasters and get the orders out.
I swear, without having heard this creation myth attached to them, I would still be in awe of Falmouth’s two CF6s. They’re by far my favourite Yamaha grand pianos I’ve ever played — and they’re in my top five favourite ever pianos. I’ve not seen or heard this story anywhere, in relation to Yamaha piano manufacturing after the tsunami. It’s out there somewhere though, the real story in all its detail, waiting to be shared.
But in the years since, informally and anecdotally, I have noticed a steadily and consistently increasing sense of admiration for Yamaha grands, wherever I’ve found piano people. It does makes me wonder. Perhaps that overcoming of great trauma, that act of mourning and that determination to honour the lost in craft, has simply created better pianos ever since.
There is another, much more famous ‘tsunami piano’. This is the concert grand owned by Miyagi Agricultural High School in Natori, which is also (of course) a Yamaha. When the great waves ripped through the school, the piano was engulfed. It was badly damaged, yet it survived with its basic structure in one piece and somehow it was even still playable, albeit with a recipe of unusual timbres and imperfections across the range of its notes. This piano became quite well known locally, as a focal point for memories of the tsunami.
Not long afterwards, iconic composer Ryuchi Sakamoto discovered the piano and decided to preserve it as a piece of sound art: he hired Yamaha’s engineers to make the lightest touch possible repairs, to strengthen it, so that it would survive long-term as a piano, though without affecting or ‘fixing’ any of the unusual note sounds. Then Sakamoto designed a machine to automatically ‘play’ earthquakes from all around the world on the piano, live. His machine translates global seismic data into a ‘musical score’ of instructions for robot fingers to ‘play’ on the piano’s notes. I’ve not heard it and I can’t find it on YouTube. But I like to imagine it was those same engineers who finished the grand pianos that now live quietly in Cornwall.
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