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Stephen Hough on the beginning of modern music

  • 1.  Stephen Hough on the beginning of modern music

    Posted 03-04-2018 21:58
    Edited by Karl Roeder 03-04-2018 21:59
    Stephen Hough has an article in the New York Times you might want to read.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/arts/music/debussy-stephen-hough.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fmusic&action=click&contentCollection=music&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront

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    Karl Roeder
    Pompano Beach FL
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  • 2.  RE: Stephen Hough on the beginning of modern music

    Posted 03-05-2018 18:41
    I vote for Machaut.

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    Scott Cole
    Talent OR
    541-601-9033
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  • 3.  RE: Stephen Hough on the beginning of modern music

    Posted 03-05-2018 19:56
    <grin> Machaut is so old he is new again.

    Karl, thanks for the link. I have listened a few times to the embedded "Pagodes" from "Estampes" sound clip.

    The playing is wonderful, as expected. However, the tuning in the high treble seems to provide an excellent example of what happens when someone decides arbitrarily to make clean, (even compressed?) single octaves in octave 7 the highest priority, without listening to the piece being played. Da-da-dee, da-da-dee, da-da-dee, each an octave higher, showing perfectly that the highest notes are forlornly flat. A singer or an instrumentalist would instantly pick up on it. And it comes back over and over again in the piece.

    Some of the bass isn't exactly where I'd put it, but it's easy enough to have a difference of opinion there.  Not like the high treble, which is frankly *wrong.*

    Sometimes I blush for our profession.

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    Susan Kline
    Philomath, Oregon
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  • 4.  RE: Stephen Hough on the beginning of modern music

    Posted 03-05-2018 20:44
    Going further down in the article, I found corroboration that the flat octave 7 is a new phenomenon. Find "A Pianist's Favorite Debussy Recordings", a whole list of them. Listen to all the Gieseking clips, old crashy sound, lo fi, even a slightly uneven temperament --- but the high treble in no way offends a musical ear.

    Not enough? Okay, try the Cortot. Much less crashy --- the top end is beautifully placed.

    Still not enough? Moving right along, try the Images by Arturo Benedetti Michaelangeli. The top octave sounds just like the others, instead of sagging.

    L'isle Joyeuse, by Horowitz -- we may even be listening to Franz Mohr, here. The top octave in no way offends.

    Then I listened to the rest of the Stephen Hough excerpts. Voicing, and his control of tone, are really fine. And then he plays some high notes. Argh, such a waste. Nobody caught it? Why not?

    When I first was tuning, in the 1980's, I would follow work where someone had stretched the top six or seven notes till they screamed -- like, over a semitone sharp. In fact, I picked up some work from other musicians who hated the extreme (and abrupt) stretch. I called it a little curlicue, and explained that it was an old-time notion. In Ted Sambell's memoirs, it shows up as a new-fangled idea, and he despised it.

    A few times in the 1980's I had the chance to hear tunings done with the early tuning devices, like the SOT. I could hear that the top of octave 5 and all of octave 6 were quite flat, and then octave 7 more than made up for it. Well, time has moved on, and that doesn't seem to be true anymore. But I hear octave 7 flat in recent recordings all the time, and never, ever in older recordings.

    An excellent article, and very interesting links to recordings. Thanks, Karl.

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    Susan Kline
    Philomath, Oregon
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  • 5.  RE: Stephen Hough on the beginning of modern music

    Posted 03-07-2018 11:49
    Thanks Susan for your input on the tuning of the piano! I hope you are doing alright.

    May I ask what your procedure is when tuning a piano for a concert, how do you proceed into the treble and or bass and what criteria are you using to make sure you are getting what you are aiming for?

    Thank you,

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    Mark Davis
    Piano Tuner/Technician
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  • 6.  RE: Stephen Hough on the beginning of modern music

    Posted 03-07-2018 14:45
    Thank you, Mark, for replying and taking an interest.

    How I approach the task depends on whether I'm tuning a piano which only I tune, or another which I'm seeing for the first time, like a rental.

    Stability is THE prerequisite, because without it it doesn't matter how excellent your sense of stretch or your ear for a beautiful sound is.

    If I'm tuning a rental piano, I put a very solid tuning onto it, which I then beat up a little bit from about middle C up through the top of the first capo section. Beating on Octave 7 -- well, I'd like to, but in the past I broke wire doing it. In fact, one year I broke a string on 3 different Steinway D's, at or near C#7. One of them was less than a year old. I decided that this particular scale might have a weakness at that particular point. I desisted.

    "Beat up" the tuning? Hard blows, (2 fingers and my thumb clumped together) repeated quickly two or three times, chromatically, up the scale. Then I check them softly to see if anything strayed. I don't ALWAYS do this, but if I feel any doubt about stability or rendering I will.

    There is no point in beating up anything below middle C, assuming your hammer technique is reasonable. Most of the straying will happen in the first capo section, but then, many people will have worked that area over in their tunings. I find that a pianist who enjoys a real slugfest will likely drive out notes mostly in the region just below the capo break, because they haven't been beaten on as hard in routine tuning. C#5 seems to be especially hard to get really stable. D5, just above the break, can be hard to settle, so it usually takes a beating during a tuning. This makes it brighter than the rest of the section, so people tend to voice it down. Then it not only doesn't match the others, it can have a fuzzy edge but less substance. I wish people would deal with D5 voicing with a little bit more delicacy.

    For pianos which only I tune, I can gradually develop stability, so I don't need hard test blows. In the the part of the scale where heavy playing tends to bother unisons, I tune with a solid fairly loud but not brutal dynamic level. The best thing for tuning stability in a piano you see often is to put your best solid tuning onto it, have the artist practice on it, and then spend about an hour just before the people come in, going meticulously over any notes which strayed, and also sweetening up the voicing, especially at lower dynamic levels. Pianists, of course, can practice whichever pieces they choose, but whatever else they are working on, they usually will play the pieces they are going to perform that day. So, they leave a nearly perfect map of which notes are going to be under stress. I pay exceptionally close attention to these notes.

    <shameless boasting, please forgive me> Garrick Ohlsson played here two weeks ago, which was an incredible treat for us! I don't know how my boss managed it, but she brought him here. A friendly technician had warned me that I shouldn't feel bad "when" Garrick drove out some unisons, saying "he's a big guy." Forewarned/armed, etc. I went all out on stability and voicing. I had unlimited time at the piano two days before he came, and I used almost 5 hours of it. Yes, I know, not practical in many places, but this is my comfortable semi-retirement backwater. It is definitely possible here. He practiced, told my boss he liked the piano, and after he was done I spent an hour and a half going over the tuning and voicing. No unisons were smashed up, but many had the same tiny curl in them. I tidied. The important thing for that last tidying of barely changed unisons is to make the interventions as small as possible, because the tensions are nearly perfect already, so you don't want to unsettle them. Stability is cumulative, so the more chances you have to get at the piano after it has been heavily played, the better. Anything which stays really good gets left alone. Anything which moves is worked on again, and once the unisons get to where you can barely tell they have changed, you use very subtle nudges, so small you can't really hear the pitch move -- little bumps, just feeling the resistance of the pin without really trying to move it. After four or five little bumps -- like tap tap tap tap -- the unison sounds right again, that is, with the same creamy texture as all its neighbors. When a unison is in this condition, having progressively changed from unstable to pretty good to very good to barely out to so subtly out you can barely hear it -- you are going to be pretty safe, if you haven't moved the pin too far, and if the piano has had some heavy playing in the past.

    At intermission, there was hardly anything to do. I spent about five minutes, half of it on voicing.

    After the third encore, the tuning was fine except octave 7. Some of them were pretty far gone -- but then, I don't beat on notes up there.
    All I really can do up there is to repeatedly go over them every chance I get.

    <end boast mode>

    Okay, how do I proceed? I tune aurally, "Both Ways from the Middle." By the way, in preparing Ted Sambell's memoirs, I found a convention class handout he made about this temperament and also his order of teaching beginning tuning. I've typed it in, so it can be used in an appendix. I always thought his approach to teaching beginners to tune was truly elegant. It was good to find out that he had written it all down. "Both Ways from the Middle", originally by William Stonaker way back when, starts with an F to F octave. The only difference I've made to the process is to add a C# after tuning A3 and both F's, to get stacked major thirds. Temperament done, I progress outward by octaves. I frequently check fourths and fifths below the newly tuned note (going into the treble), or above the newly tuned note, going into the bass. If I wonder where to put a bass note, I see how the minor 3rd-major 6th test sounds. Usually it is right on. On a concert instrument, I don't need special tests in the extreme bass. I just go by ear. Once done in the bass, I test single octaves with a descending chromatic scale to see if anything sticks out. Usually it doesn't.

    This may not be very helpful, but my most frequently used test is, "do I like it?" If, in my progress, I come across anything I don't like, I stop and change it. Of course, if I've got severe time pressure, I'll fix whatever is most obviously a problem, and then go very quickly through the tuning to a conclusion. Usually, there is more time than that, and I can wander through regions, listening to individual notes and intervals, changing anything I spot, either tuning, stability, or voicing. I really like listening to the tone and the intervals. This freedom probably would seem lackadaisical to an ETD tuner with a tight schedule. I understand that it is a luxury, so I enjoy it.

    If conditions have changed, such as in a church where I tuned on a weekday, and a concert is on a Sunday afternoon, with the heat on, I check the tenor and bass and get them set straight again. It goes very quickly, and the resonance and musicality of having the tenor and bass back where they belong makes the whole piano happy.

    How do I know I'm getting what I am aiming for? The only real way to do this is to attend the concert. After the tuning, a medium speed chromatic scale all the way up, listening for voicing and unisons, is more a security blanket than a real necessity. Sometimes I play an individual note, starting in the bass and going up by octaves to the high treble. This gives me an idea what contour (octave stretch) I've got -- but once again, it's more for a sense of security than from need. After so many years, first of playing the cello, (solo, chamber music, and orchestra), then of tuning pianos aurally, octave size has become deeply embedded. Maybe that is why I go ballistic when I hear a flat octave 7, like I did with the Stephen Hough recording. For someone without this background who wants to work on this trait, my best suggestion would be to listen to old piano recordings (then compare with new ones later on), go to every single concert you tune for, and listen to good quality orchestral music, live if possible. And don't lean on an ETD. There's an emotional component in that octave stretch. It's not just information.

    I hope this was of some use. Approaches to tuning are highly individual.



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    Susan Kline
    Philomath, Oregon
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  • 7.  RE: Stephen Hough on the beginning of modern music

    Posted 03-07-2018 16:31
    Thank you very much for the very informative post Susan! I much appreciate your time, care and expertise, thank you!

    All of the best,

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    Mark Davis
    Piano Tuner/Technician
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