The first has been provided courtesy of our Honda Odyssey's CD player. Although buying our first minivan a couple of years ago was midlife-crisis inducing, I was delighted that the CD player plays mp3 CDs. The mp3 CD is an underrated medium - while it's not quite the same as having an iPod's worth of music at hand, you can typically get about 10 album's worth onto one disc, so we usually have a disc in the player with lots of kids' favorites. It's always there, ready to go - no worries about hooking up wires, etc.
Now, try as I might to convince the children that Bach, Schumann, and Prokofiev should be their musical favorites, I've got to admit that my daughters enjoy the musical stylings of one Taylor Swift, so Ms. Swift gets a lot of minivan airtime. However, one quirk of the mp3 CD system is that the discs tend to age fast, for reasons (weather?) I don't fully understand. Unlike records which might crackle and skip, or tape cassettes which tend to warp and bend the pitches, these discs start skipping just little tiny bits at a time, so it sounds rather like Taylor's had too much coffee. (Taylor Too Swift?) Measure after measure, there are these little lurches ahead, rarely significant enough to obscure the melody or lyrics.
Of course, pop music is nothing if not predictable as to where the beat falls, so it's still pretty obvious when the skipping starts because the beat gets weird. My 4-year old son, who's often angling to switch to some other musical choice, will frequently notify us right away when the irregularities begin - a beat gone awry can be felt quite easily. The techy side of me gets a little annoyed that the technology breaks down so often; but the mischevious side of me really enjoys the funhouse polyrhythmic results. Suddenly, music that can be mindnumbingly banal (I'm probably being too hard on Ms. Swift, but whatever) has a wonderfullly unpredictable kind of manic energy. Here's a little sampler:
Yes, it's maddening, I suppose, but it's also engaging and kind of fascinating to hear the poor CD player try its best to keep the music going, even though something has obviously been corrupted. At any rate, I enjoy hearing it this way more than this way. (Taylor, if you're reading this, maybe you can write a song about how mean I am.)
So, yeah, my daughters have inflicted more Taylor Swift on me than I would've predicted, but they are also excellent young violinists in training, so I can't really complain. In fact, much as I've always loved accompanying, I'm finding nothing is more satisfying than being their accompanist, so I don't mind at all accompanying them to their lessons. Except....their generally old-school Russian teacher has a very new-school piano in her studio. It is not, in fact, a piano at all; it is a digital piano. Ugh.
Ironically, one of the biggest problems with a digital piano is that its sound is too clean and carefully modulated. I think the piano is the most wonderfully imperfect of instruments (all viola jokes aside) - it can never be perfectly tuned, the upper register never sustains enough, it's a percussion instrument often masquerading as a lyrical instrument, etc., etc. All of these imperfections are part of what make the piano so special - a great piano sound is the product of all sorts of compromises and sleights of hand/foot that meld into something much greater than its parts. Too often, a digital piano bypasses all the magic and just produces a dry, pale shadow of the true piano sound. I'd generally rather play a badly out-of-tune, uneven upright piano than a digital thing, so I'm always left a little unsatisfied playing at the girls' lessons.
Until...some time last Spring, this dry, predictable machine sprung a leak of a kind that should logically be even more frustrating than a skipping CD player. The keys are "touch sensitive" as one would expect from a digital piano, but for some reason, the touch sensitivity started failing on the second B below middle C. This turned out to mean depressing the key would have one of two equally depressing results: no sound at all, or the loudest sound possible, as if the key had been pounded ferociously.
The first couple of times I experienced the latter, it was truly disorienting. There I am, absent-mindedly playing along fairly softly when, for no apparent reason, there's this cannon-shot effect. Pianists are so used to having the level of sound correlate to the physical input that this kind of synthesized anomaly is wildly unnatural. As it happened, one daughter was playing a piece in B minor that day, the other a piece in E minor (which features lots of low B's as the dominant), so sightreading suddenly took on a minefield-like quality. I quickly learned to scan ahead for low B's, and then make quick decisions about whether an octave displacement was practical or whether bailing altogether would be best. Inevitably, I'd miss a few (meaning I'd hit a few) and then WHAM!
From a musical point-of-view, this was and continues to be a very frustrating problem. But I've come to look forward to the challenge of avoiding that B, week after week. I've written often about how sightreading can be like playing a video game (hence, the whole Piano Hero thing); this just adds an extra layer of difficulty to the experience. I suppose it's also gratifying to see the technology fail so bizarrely. Lots of things can go wrong with a piano action, including having notes that don't play at all, but the experience of having a very gentle touch converted into an aural karate chop is just SO wrong. It definitely keeps me on my toes.
It's a complicated question as to whether or not this is a kind of musical satisfaction. I would argue that it is - that part of the joy of musicmaking is the thrill of negotiating the technical minefields any instrument presents. And while the pleasure I get from the over-caffeinated Taylor Swift is not a sophisticated kind of musical taste, it is a reaction to the same kind of tension-through-unpredictability that Stravinsky and so many others have exploited via complex meters,syncopations, and the like. When technology goes wrong, even in its own inhuman ways, it can seem comfortingly human, because what's more unpredictable than humans?
Or maybe I'm just getting bored.