The inside of a grand piano is a huge, resonant chamber full of sonic possibilities. To pluck a piano bass string is to feel deep vibrations and see a string turned to blur whilst it rings out with rich sound. At the other extreme, a fast plectrum glissando on the ‘dead’ end of the high strings – the section of string between the bridge and the hitch pins (the ones at the opposite end of the tuning area) – bursts out like a screamer firework. In between, plucked middle strings can sound muted and doleful (done with fingertips) or bright and metallic (done with nails) and all kinds of incredible effects can be found by scraping, strumming, rubbing, holding and even hitting the strings.
It is onto this canvas that I have poured my energies. This first led me into incredible repertoire, such as Lachenmann’s Guero, where the pianist plays the key surfaces without depressing the keys. Very early pieces like Henry Cowell's The Banshee or the Aeolian Harp (both from 1923) draw out both the spooky and the soothing. George Crumb’s Apparition introduces laying a necklace or a glass across the piano strings to articulate sonic images of other states of being.
After several years of playing the rich variety of contemporary repertoire that was on offer to me, I began to think about how this all felt physically. And I realised that leaning into a grand piano was hopelessly uncomfortable – back-breaking, in fact! And I also sensed a disconnect for the audience. So, I began re-building pianos, to send the strings vertically up from the keys. I have, I believe, the only piano in the world where the player can play every part of every string.
The first two pianos I re-shaped, an upright in 2008 and then an Erard grand, were both creatively very stimulating. The first ended up with its strings the wrong way round because of how I’d rotated the string board so the bass was on the right. That taught me to appraise my piano playing afresh! The second could swing in mid-air like a huge clock, which gave me the inspiration to make a theatre show about becoming a mum and the surprises we don’t expect in life.
I’m now building my third prototype, a lightweight ‘Standing Grand’, ready for the end of 2020. The fruits of a long collaboration with aerospace engineers and using composite materials to replace the cast iron, it will be an astonishing 82kg, despite having the same sound as a 5’6” grand piano.
It is with the amazing and unique Erard that I am touring my ’12 Years’ recital-story, something of a plea for the planet. In 2018, reading increasingly disturbing headlines relating to the environment, I realised I needed to do more than just sign petitions and go on marches. The ’12 years’ of the title is the time given to us in 2018 by the IPCC to massively reduce our carbon emissions to keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees. They are still going up.
It is onto the extraordinary resonant space of the inside piano that I have drawn the different depictions of the work, including the Camp Fire in California, 2018, where me percussively hitting the resounding bass strings in a repeating rhythm drives the music as recordings of survivors trying to escape are heard. I have imagined how it might sound to be inside a glacier and have re-created my own version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to accompany the terrifying headlines we read with increasing regularity.
To have my head right in front of the pounding, ringing strings feels like I am literally placing myself inside a world, a microcosm of organic sounds and structures which can mirror to some extent the emotional range we might experience in our lives.
I read an article about luxury bunkers in summer 2018 and the thought 'who is buying these?' wouldn’t leave my brain. My imagination gradually attempted to start answering this and the fictional characters now appear, phoning each other during the recital, urging each other to worry less or do more about the climate crisis. I want my concert to make people think, I want to raise questions, jolt the audience out of their comfort but also offer a thread to hold if they want it. The penultimate movement is Greta Thunberg in three separate speeches whilst at the end of the last movement I try to throw hope and action out into the audience.
Sarah Nicolls tours 12 Years on her Inside Out Piano to 12 UK venues from 21 March – 24 October, full details here https://www.sounduk.net/events/12-years-sarah-nicolls/