The Piano Makers – St. Peter’s Cathedral

Experience the inner workings of Matthew Barnard’s soundscape The Piano Makers.

‘The Piano Makers’, St Peter’s Church - Nottingham

Imagine a grand piano. Away from the obvious – the black and ivory keys, metal pedals, the huge casing, a poised music stand –instead consider the piano’s insides, the actual anatomy of the instrument. There will be dozens of strings, reams of intricate mechanisms and weighted parts. All fit together, work alongside, and move with each other to produce sounds from which music is eventually made. It is a beautiful, intelligent production process and a huge shame therefore that the art of piano making has ended on British shores.

For this reason exactly, it is such a great thing that an exhibition featuring the sounds of the ‘piano-makers’ has come to life in the hallowed spires of St Peter’s Church, bang in the very heart of Nottingham’s city centre giving us a testament to a dying art.

The Church itself is nestled tightly amongst commercial shops, small cafes and the odd outside stall. St Peter’s sits pretty, mid-way between the rush rising from Nottingham’s train station, and the clamber coming down from Market Square. Step through the doors however and there is instant release; a stillness in the midst of restlessness.

After calm descends however, the exhibition isn’t actually very easy to find. It is not until a kind church volunteer (those of the eternal smile) recognises my searching stare, and I am told where to go to collect my headphones, that understanding begins. Headphones? Any confusion finally makes sense upon being told the exhibition is entirely audio, made up of binaural recordings by artist Matthew Barnard.

Each sound was carefully recorded in the Kemble Piano Factory in Milton Keynes, the last to exist in the UK due to relocation to Indonesia and Japan. The recording includes bangs, the odd tinkle of melodic ivory, hit keys, clinks, metal-upon-metal, wood-upon-wood, and the echo of the factory floor. Mixed amongst this, the odd voice seeps through the mechanical choir – so realistic in fact, I admit to glancing behind twice to check a church warden wasn’t trying to have a word.

‘The Piano Makers’, St Peter’s Church - Nottingham

The use of headphones for an exhibition of this kind is extremely clever. It ascertains the experience is isolated, lonely, and all encompassing. Place the headphones over ears, and you are instantly on the factory floor, surrounded by piano anatomy and the people who work to put it all together. The recordings play on a loop, hypnotic in its repetition, lack of words and bleakness.

Tension, weight and suspension also feature heavy. Sounds are straining and abundant in weight. This is not surprising when it is said the frame and strings of a fully strung piano must withstand the pressure of about 20 tonnes. It is a huge feat, and the exhibition respects it. Respectful, in fact, to the point of being poignant.

Indeed, if you venture beyond the thrill of placing earphones on heads and hearing sounds in the setting of a pretty Church, to realise the sad fact that factory doors were shut soon after the recordings were made, it becomes utterly melancholic. The exhibition transforms into a kind-of-funeral to the beautiful, intricate and underrated construction of, and working mechanisms within a piano.

Such is the power of the exhibition and the recordings, you don’t even necessarily have to look around the church. However, I fully recommend that you do. Dating from 1100AD, it really is a gem. Mixing old and new, archaic architecture with bright windows, and the traditional with The Triptych (modern imagery painted behind the high altar in 2003), it is eclectic at its best.

And however isolating the experience may be, however sad the realisation that piano factories do not exist in this country anymore, what should be remembered about the exhibition is the beauty of creation.

Indeed nothing enters into life without having been, in some way, created. Nothing is a product of its own construction. However easy it is to see the beauty in the end product and the delight of a finished polished grand piano, the birth of it will have been ever more beautiful. This exhibition carefully explores the power of this creation, and shows the respect their creators deserve. Matthew Barnard’s haunting soundtrack is a fitting tribute indeed.

-Hannah Astill

The Piano Makers is on display at St. Peter’s Cathedral as part of the WEYA festival in Nottingham until 16 September, 2012.