Ana­logue

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

The Simple Things - - THINK | BELONGINGS - Words: JU­LIAN OWEN

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”

Pho­tog­ra­phy: JONATHAN CHERRY

Pi­ano man Adam Cox is al­ways tick­led by the prospect of tick­ling some ivories

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