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Will Pickvance: Dissecting the piano

By | Published on Thursday 30 July 2015


Virtuoso pianist Will Pickvance dissected in detail his relationship with the piano in his much acclaimed show ‘Anatomy Of The Piano’ at Edinburgh Festivals 2013 and 2014, playing a fair few numbers along the way.
This year he returns with the sequel to that show, ‘Alchemy Of The Piano’, plus a new children’s version of the original show. We sat down at another kind of keyboard and questioned Pickvance about the two new shows.

CC: Before we get onto the shows, let’s talk backstory. Your musical talents seem to have taken you on an interesting journey, give us a speedy resumé.
WP: Because I hadn’t trained formally as a musician, I had to guess my way into work and learn on the job. I set sail on a boat playing the piano where I met a producer who asked me to come and direct music for pantomimes. This in turn led to, amongst other things, my collaborating with an eccentric millionaire to bring his dream of a musical about train stations to fruition. I became resident musician at Skibo Castle, a place for the rich and famous, and where Madonna got married. I did the music for Robbie Williams’ birthday party, jammed with the Eagles, and toured the US, where I was received rather like some 1930s British musical eccentric, before leaving to work on my own stuff, like ‘Anatomy Of The Piano.

CC: Where did the idea for that original ‘Anatomy Of The Piano’ show come from?
WP: I like taking the piano out of the concert hall and putting it somewhere alternative, bringing new audiences to piano music and perhaps changing people’s perception of the instrument. When I stumbled across the Victorian anatomy lecture theatre at Summerhall, I instantly wanted to do something there. It occurred to me that I would present a dissection of the piano alongside the recital. So I started my investigations.

CC: How does new show ‘Alchemy Of The Piano’ compare?
WP: If ‘Anatomy Of The Piano’ was about the relationship of piano and pianist, ‘Alchemy Of The Piano’ is more about my relationship with music itself. Where might interpretation and improvisation come from? The piano is a machine for a very personal expression. I also feature more piano solos in this new show.

CC: How do you decide what music to play during the show?
WP: This show is actually about how I decide what music to play. Or perhaps, how my subconscious decides for me, based on the clutter in my head. Melodies are mixed up with anxieties, moods and memories. I have chosen and written motifs which I will dissect musically.

CC: The stories are obviously a key part of the proceedings. Which comes first, the music or the stories?
WP: The two go hand in hand. Having woven anecdotes into a narrative, I then attempt to have the music working as a reflection of this running parallel. My intention is that the stories give the audience an insight into my piano solos and improvising.

CC: What motivated the kids’ show version?
WP: Many people suggested that I should do an adaptation of ‘Anatomy Of The Piano’ for younger audiences, particularly given the make-belief nature of the original. My fascination with the piano started as a young kid and still burns as strong today as back then. Here was an opportunity to make a show about this. It wasn’t scales and exams that got me hooked. and so often kids particularly are put off early on by these metrics. I wanted to show not just kids, but anyone who doesn’t already think the piano is cool, that they’re missing out.

CC: How does it compare to the show for grown ups?
WP: Without wanting to spoil it, the shows start and end the same way: I wanted a spaceship for Christmas, I got a piano, but turns out you can get to the Moon with a piano. In this children’s version, rather than look at the relationship of pianist with piano, I have presented a history of the piano as carved out by three heroes of the instrument, Bach, Beethoven and Fats Waller. Each comes to the rescue to bring us the amazing piano we know today.

CC: Are children harder or easier to perform for?
WP: They are both harder and easier. They are more vocal with their honest opinions. I’m not too used to heckling and with this being my first children’s show, I’ve had to learn to deal with interjections quickly, often from surprisingly well-informed kids. When I was performing the show in Australia earlier this year, one child was particularly indignant that I had not included Wagner.

CC: It sounds like the shows are partly a PR campaign for the piano. Do you hope some of your audience – especially at the kids show – might be inspired to take up piano playing themselves?
WP: I’m addicted to playing the piano and above all else, I like to inspire anyone to get started or pick it up again, even if it’s been years. Many people are put off for one reason or another. I’m convinced that everyone can take something very personal out of the piano. Even with the children’s show, I have found adults to be equally captivated and in that respect, it’s not so much a show for children as it is a show for the whole family.

CC: I always think the advantage of being a piano player is you can walk into any room that has a piano in it, sit down at the keyboard and impress everyone. Though taking your own piano on tour is quite a challenge.
WP: Well, as I said in ‘Anatomy Of The Piano’, the pianist effectively goes on a blind date every time they play a new piano, such is the variation in quality, condition and maybe even soul. I try to converse with pianos of all backgrounds but I’m definitely jealous of musicians who take their instrument with them and enjoy a meaningful monogamous relationship. Sometimes I think it would be nice to settle down.

CC: You cover all the genres in the show. Which do you prefer to play?
WP: I do enjoy having lots of genres on the palette. It was stride jazz piano that got me into the piano at the beginning. Guys like Fats Waller and Erroll Garner, and I guess that style is probably my default position. I’m more likely to swing Beethoven than to turn ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ into a sonata, although I will of course attempt both.

CC: Other than yourself, obviously, who’s the greatest living piano player? And why?
WP: Piano playing is like track and field; so many different events within it at which to excel. In terms of literal interpretation of the great classical piano works, Daniel Barrenboim is up there because of his scholarly attention to detail married with his technical mastery and musicianship. If we’re talking about more personal, idiosyncratic performance, Keith Jarrett is a special talent. And if you want to see a piano approached in a new, alternative method, Nils Frahm is interesting. But I could go on and on!

‘Alchemy Of The Piano’ and ‘Anatomy Of The Piano (For Beginners)’ were performed at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival 2015.

LINKS: willpickvance.com