image image

Last night in New Caledonia, the piano at the venue was in a very poor condition. Pianos are hard to come across on this island, and this one has spent most of its life in a hotel lobby. It had only been temporarily removed from the hotel for our concert. The piano tuner spent most of the afternoon taking the piano apart to try to get the mechanics working at least half-reliably. It was a tiny baby grand, which makes for some very short bass strings, which results in a pretty strange sound in the lower register. Everyone seemed concerned about how it would perform, but to my own surprise I wasn’t that worried. And the concert went down very well. I guess there are several reasons why performing on a less than perfect instrument doesn’t have to be a negative experience.

First of all, it depends on your focus. One image that comes to mind is that of legendary pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim performing in a run-down community hall in Ramallah, Palestine. I remember him performing the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven on a ragged, old, uneven piano. This is a man who spends his life in the most prestigious concert halls in the world, playing the most pristine, sublime, expensive pianos you can imagine. Yet he didn’t seem to mind the quality of the old piano in Ramallah. The concert had such an enormous symbolic value: a musical legend of his caliber coming to this troubled part of the world, playing in a neighborhood where people of his status normally wouldn’t even set foot, let alone give a concert. From that point of view, who cares about the quality of the piano? I believe that even if you aren’t playing in Ramallah, and even if you’re not Barenboim, if your focus is on sharing music with people, about trying to bring forth that unique social experience that a concert can be, where people gather around music and temporarily leave their everyday struggles behind them, and somehow manage to connect in a dimension beyond language and divisions, the quality of the instrument isn’t all that important. At least it shouldn’t be your main concern.

Another reason is that limitations can be quite inspiring. Keith Jarrett, besides being one of the greatest musicians alive, is known for being extremely, almost hysterically demanding, including regarding the choice of his piano in any given venue. He’ll usually have two or three Steinways delivered at soundcheck to choose from. But when he was in Rio a few years ago for one of his improvised solo concerts, he was stuck with an old piano that had spent many years in Brazil, in less than optimal conditions for preserving an instrument. This imperfect, unique instrument inspired him to perform an absolutely magical concert, working around the shortcomings of the instrument and highlighting it’s qualities. He was himself so overwhelmed, that he called his label manager, Manfred Eicher of ECM records, the next morning from the airport and said: “Forget about everything we have planned, we have to release a live album of last night’s concert.”

The city of New Orleans also comes to mind. This place has one of the most humid climates you can imagine, it’s extremely hot, and it seems like one of the worst places in the world to have a piano, especially in a world pre-aircondition. Yet surprisingly, it’s one of the piano capitals of the world. People like Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and many more have invented a style of playing that is a wonderful mix of Caribbean, African, and Western influences, and that is perfectly suited to these climatically challenged pianos. Like Keith Jarrett, these people brilliantly managed to find the unique voices of the instruments and build around them, instead of being frustrated by their limitations.

On a broader level, working with limitations is a well-established and mature creative concept. Brian Eno has put a lot of thought into this. He has even made a deck of cards with rules on them, and if you ever find yourself stuck in your creative process, you pull a card and submit yourself to whatever the card dictates. “Work at a different speed”, “Use an old idea”, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention”, things like that. I don’t know if using a less-than-perfect instrument is on one of the cards, but it definitely could be.

This approach works really well in recording studios, as well. If you try to use whatever instruments are lying around, even if they have shortcomings or are dysfunctional in some way, it’s always an interesting process to see what idea you can get out of whatever the instrument has to offer. And it’s a guaranteed way of not repeating yourself, since you’re responding to something that is unique to the place and the context you’re in.

Why not even apply this philosophy to people, relationships, situations? Things are never entirely perfect. But if you accept this fact, and focus on trying to build around the unique qualities that any given individual, place or situation has to offer, and not get destabilized by whatever imperfections there might be, beautiful things could happen. It’s definitely a way to improve the odds.