The Sounds Old Things Make

Son No.3 is playing the piano in the next room.  He’s practising Exile Vilify by The National, a piece written for Portal 2 the video game.  We’ve come a long way from Pong haven’t we, in only 40 odd years.  Maybe forty years seems like a lifetime to you but, trust me, it’s a blip on the time passing radar.

The following was the game soundtrack to my 1970’s life.  You may find yourself pressing pause after roughly 5 seconds:

Exile Vilify, part of the gaming soundtrack of our kids’ lives –  you may find yourself listening to the whole thing.

There’s no other sound in the house as son No. 3 plays, except for the ticking of a 1930’s art deco clock; one that I have to wind with a brass key.

The sound the piano keys make, as the hammers gently hit the strings, drifts through an open door, into the hall and out on the street via an open window.  I imagine the black notes jumping from the page and dancing out that window, like an updated scene from Fantasia.

If you’re a piano player you’ll know the electronic versions never quite come close to the real thing.  Even if you own an ancient upright, like the one in the next room, you’ll notice the lack of tone, depth and feeling, within keyboards that are plugged into the wall.

I’m a fan of old things.  The clock I wind everyday is always five minutes slow, but its sonorous tick-tock-tick is comforting.  The piano I play is scratched and worn, and one of the keys sticks every single time, but it responds to the player’s touch and can go from brashly loud to hauntingly soft.

Son No. 2  recently got himself the latest Kindle.  Its casing is almost book-like, and he can adjust the settings so that the pages on the screen resemble actual paper, whilst also toning down screen glare to mimic natural daylight.  It’s wonderful.  An entire library held within something that fits inside your average coat pocket.

But it’s not a book and it’s not a library.  Books rustle as you turn the pages and, after quite some time, they start to smell of the living world they came from, as they begin to yellow and age.  Books contain and refresh your memories. Libraries are hushed sanctums for the worshippers of books, the shelves lined with holy relics – the old ones echoing with knowledge and learning.   A religious place for the non-religious.  A calming respite from the button pushing techno world.

My laptop is a wonder, but it’s hard and metallic with an eyeball distracting glare. The laptop occasionally hums and whirs into sporadic life, notifying me of a security breach, the latest update, or it beeps in anger when I try clicking on the wrong thing or in the wrong place.  The speakers sound harsh and occasionally distorted.

Technology feels and sounds cold, dead and intimidating.

The old things are alive. They speak to you, even though they lack voice synthesisers and voice recognition. Collectors know this.  They collect old things.  Rummaging around the tip or the car boots.  Coming home with oak wood speakers the size of a small house, or ancient telephones. Whiling away the evenings fixing them up, getting them to make their old, distinctive sounds again.  The old things are becoming collectable.  They have retro-cool.

The piano in the next room is still playing in the background – haunting and melodic.  When you really want to capture emotion, use wood and strings and brass, with a human interface.   It’s why pianos and a full orchestral sound are so effective in movie scores and television adverts.   The electronic duo Daft Punk knew this when they scored Tron Legacy, fusing their electro sound with an 85 piece orchestra, producing one of the most influential movie soundtracks (in my opinion) in recent years.

Technology will continue to advance and evolve, but there will always be somebody, somewhere, playing an ancient piano in a futuristic room.



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