The musical keyboard is one of the West’s most durable technologies, achieving what became its modern form already in the 15th century. Even then, this template of diatonic keys divided by smaller, raised chromatic ones could be used to operate a range of possible sound-producing mechanisms: pulling down valves for organs; sending small metal hammers towards the string in clavichords; raising jacks equipped with quills that plucked the strings of harpsichords. Innovations in the production of sound—as in the 18th-century development of the pianoforte—retained the arrangement of keys even if, as time went on, the number of them expanded upwards into the treble and downward into the bass.
Fascinated by, and expert in, musical technology, Bach contributed to the eventual success of the piano in Germany; leading composer/performers that followed—Mozart and Beethoven among them—also offered their support to innovative builders. But through this evolution, the arrangement of the keyboard itself remained essentially unchanged. Once thoroughly trained on one of these instruments, the hands can quickly adapt to the others, even without the aid of sight. It is no coincidence that so many of the greatest keyboardists have been blind: the keyboard provides a universal way of seeing music with your hands.
The 20th century witnessed further innovations without abandoning the trusted layout of the keyboard. In Trumansburg, New York, the Moog synthesizer was born nearly fifty years ago and with it a sound that defined an era of experimentation and liberation. The universality of the keyboard Moog used meant that Bach could have sat down and, as it were, switched on the machine and started playing without a hitch. Such continuity obtains for no other group of musical instruments, nor even connects so directly the typewriter and laptop.
One of the myriad keyboards invented over the last half millenium is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year—hardly an epoch, but still a substantial milestone in these times of blindingly fast technological change. The Yamaha Clavinova is a compact keyboard devised to approximate the feel and sound of the piano in a machine that was reliable, portable, inoffensive to housemates and neighbors because it could be played silently with headphones, and versatile in that it attempted to mimic a range of other instruments—from the aforementioned harpsichord to honky-tonk wrecks and string orchestras. The Clavinova was relatively cheap and relentlessly cheerful: if things weren’t going well, you could press a button and it would play for you.
Like its even more revolutionary compatriot from Yamaha, the DX7, the Clavinova initially used FM (frequency modulation) synthesis, a system invented by the Stanford Professor of Music, composer John Chowning. Wishing, as he once told me, to put his expertise in acoustics to purposes other than listening out for Russian submarines in the Cold War, Chowning sought refuge in music and eventually developed FM synthesis; along with Carl Djerassi’s birth control pill, this musical technology proved to be one of the most lucrative patents held jointly by Stanford and the individual inventors. Chowning made more money in music than he would have in submarines. By the 1990s, however, the Clavinova had gone digital and offered an array of sampled sounds. Hoping to provide a legitimate practice instrument for pianists, Yamaha also developed a weighted key system that simulated the action of their own prized grand pianos. The Clavinovas are much cheaper than the mighty wood-and-iron-framed grands. The top-of-the-line Yamaha grand for the domestic sphere will cost you around forty thousand dollars, the best of the Clavinovas about ten.
It is both comforting and uncanny to see the trusty black-and-whites of the keyboard put into the service of the tricks of synthesis and combination facilitated by digital technology. In Yamaha’s ten-minute film featuring former Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland, this gifted and versatile player sells the myriad marvels of this keyboard in its present fully-loaded state by trumpeting its potential as an inspiration for a range of purposes: from bluesy ruminations to the complexities of orchestral arranging. The little black box, gleaming in ersatz ebony, hearkens back to the 19th-century, the keyboard to the 15th; the technology it houses skip forward into the 21st.
Back in the 1990s I often received glossy mailings of Key Action, the official trade magazine of the Yamaha Clavinova Dealers of America. In those days the selling points were mostly retrospective. First, the Clavinova marketers tried to bestow some class on their instrument by advertising its desirability among the rich and famous, something the Steinway firm had done in the 19th century by listing their clients, from the Sultan of Turkey to Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild. Yamaha attempted to create an aura of classiness around the machine with headlines like: “Newport Music Festival Summers in the Hamptons with Yamaha Clavinova,” as an issue of Key Action still among my files boasts. Thanks to the Clavinova’s “headphone capability” recitalist Dame Moura Lympany (note the all important title, even if bestowed rather than hereditary) was able to practice in Newport well after midnight.
At the bottom of the front page the long-time director of the Newport Festival, Dr. Mark Malkovich III, who died just a few years ago, leans over a grand piano. The photo is cropped just above the piano’s nameboard since the instrument is clearly a Steinway, somewhat undermining Yamaha’s claim to be the keyboard of choice among Newport rich. Alongside the tuxedo-clad Malkovich a huge bouquet of roses crowds the foreground at the left side of the frame. To the right looms a Ming vase, and in the background sumptuous drapes are pulled back so that gallons of Long Island Sound sunlight can flood through the huge windows of the beachfront mansion. This account of Clavinova’s importance to the “elite” festival invokes matters of taste and money; more than simply utilitarian, Clavinova claimed to be classy.
But open up the pamphlet and you plummet from the rarefied world of the connoisseur into the music factories of the masses, to the relentless grind of the suburban music teacher trying to eek out a living. Here the pamphlet turns from the imperatives of art to the dictates of commerce: “Private music teachers across the country are discovering how practical and profitable it is to start up a thriving business using Clavinova digital pianos.” Increase the number of students you can take by assembling a room full of Clavinovas, a common sight still at conservatory and college ear-training labs.
One Susan Cooper of the “resort community” of Camdenton, Missouri threw in her lot with Yamaha back in the 90s and within a few months had 100 students. How can one woman teach such a mob? The photographs on these pages show rooms crowded with Clavinovas; in front of each is a kid staring at the identical piece of sheet music that sits on all the other electric pianos. One boy has got his candy spread out across the top of his instrument, a practice allowed by these wipe-and-wash keyboards, though one that would have gotten a rap on the knuckles during the piano’s Golden Age. Through the studio windows can be seen not Long Island Sound, but small slices of bleak suburban landscapes. Clavinovas are still being played by children in mass lessons with their headphones on as their teacher patrols among the budding prodigies, plugging into one piano at a time to hear each pupil’s progress.
Clavinova’s were—and are—robustly interactive. Among the most popular features back then were “You are The Artist” discs that gave students the chance to play along with the soundtrack to classics like the “The Lion King.” One long-time teacher Denie Riggs, author of the recent Music Helps Autism, had some 65 students whom she taught at the River Oaks Mall in Decatur, Alabama. At a Christmas recital in 1995 in which 50 students played, those unwilling to battle their stage-fright were allowed to record their pieces onto the Clavinova’s built in disk player. During the recital these students sat at the Clavinova as it played their pre-recorded performances. The Clavinova had at last found the cure for the stage fright that had afflicted so many generations of musicians. The “traditional piano” had become, as Yamaha put it, a “user-friendly product.”
While I am a devotee of the unplugged artifacts of the keyboard’s illustrious and varied past (harpsichord, clavichord, piano, organ), I do have a ten-year-old Clavinova in my basement. In times of emergency I retreat to this bunker for late-night work on that unbreakable machine, one resilient against cold and dry, heat and humidity, standing water and hungry mice. Contrary to the company’s claims, the instrument sounds and feels only vaguely like the piano, harpsichord, organ, or even Hammond B3. Every time I play it, I come away feeling like music is a duty rather than a pleasure. And in the present age of the real piano’s demise—with so many decent, even wonderful, instruments junked rather than passed on to the next generation —the Clavinova is more expensive, if less bulky, than your grandma’s upright. Heading into its fourth decade, the Clavinova seems largely to have shed the pretensions of class and history, its venerable black-and-white keys and high-tech innards hoping that diversity and utility, rather than simple beauty, mark the way forward.