As technology advances apace, spare a thought for the once-loved objects that are left behind. We meet the people passionate about encouraging us to look again and be inspired by the beauty and inventiveness of life pre-digital. This month: PIANOS
For Cavendish Pianos, getting ebony and ivory to live together in perfect harmony is no overnight job. The instruments need up to 20,000 parts and the deft attention of everyone from string maker to action builder, metal driller to cabinet maker. Start building on New Year’s Day and it might be completed in time for a rendition of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’.
In short, you don’t go into piano making to make a fast buck. More probably you go in like Adam Cox, a man entranced by the instrument “because it’s made out of wood and metal and wool and leather, and it’s alchemy – if you put those things together in the right way, you make something that sings.”
Adam’s earliest memory is his family buying a piano. He’d sit spellbound watching a blind piano tuner go about his work and be inspired to take apart and ‘mend’ his own ever-growing collection of multifarious instruments. Childhood obsession became grown-up piano restoration business. He started selling new ones, notably Kemble, “the country’s last main piano building firm”. In 2009, new owners Yamaha shut down UK manufacture and Adam had a decision to make.
“I realised that if piano making was to miss one generation, that would be it.” So it was that he, wife Charlie, fellow instrument technology graduates and ex-Kemble employees started research and development looking at old British pianos and established the first new UK piano makers for 78 years.
Cavendish’s antecedents inhabited a different world. In the 1920s there were 150 manufacturers in London alone. Pre-TV, “the piano was the centre of the home,” says Adam. You might assume its popularity had peaked but there’s no need to break out the plangently sentimental chords yet. On the contrary: “There are more pianos being made and played than ever before,” asserts Adam, “the Chinese market is enormous – bigger than the European market ever has been.”
Thus, Yorkshire Dales-based Cavendish has a distributor in Beijing, with China taking a “core part” of their 30 to 40 pianos a year. They’re also designing instruments for America: “People there like the tradition.” As do buyers closer to home. “People in the UK expect a piano to have a very mellow tone, because that was the sound of the one their grandmother had, or the one in the school hall. There wouldn’t be any point in making a bright, strident piano because there are dozens doing the same thing. We’re not competing with Steinway for the concert platform; the rounded sound isn’t for cutting through an orchestra, it’s for expressing yourself at home.”
When it comes to playing himself, Adam says, “I just noodle. Jazzy chords and experimental stuff, because I like listening to the sounds.” It’s all part of learning the central aspect of the piano builder’s art: tone. “Hundreds of elements make it. On every string there’s length, tension, material, density, the point it’s struck. Then there’s the bridge, soundboard material, grain direction – it’s endless.”
Researching tonal greats of the past, Cavendish were most inspired by Marshall & Rose, established in London in 1907. “Mr Rose had amazing ideas; the curves the strings describe on the piano are always being tweaked, and he seemed to know intrinsically how they should be. His work seems to be in touch with the angels.”
Which may or may not make this the ideal time to play devil’s advocate: with modern electric keyboards so responsive to touch, why buy a bulky old analogue? “It’s the difference between watching a film and real life,” says Adam. “If there’s a piano in the room, little kids will play with it; keyboards don’t have that immediacy. They aren’t real in the same way.” cavendishpianos.com
“Because it’s made out of wood and metal and wool and leather... it’s alchemy”
Piano man Adam Cox is always tickled by the prospect of tickling some ivories