Saturday, 10 October 2009

Spooky ... Sparky

Via Metafilter, The Speaking Piano, and Transforming Audio to MIDI: a project to make a piano "speak". First thing I thought of was Sparky's Magic Piano - an audio story from 1947 (see Wikipedia) in which a boy who hates piano practice finds his sentient piano will play for him. He develops a concert career until, predictably as the classic retribution for hubris, the piano gets annoyed at being exploited and won't perform, humiliating Sparky (though luckily it's all a dream from which he awakes sadder but wiser, and resolving to practise).

The piano comes alive when Sparky goes into a reverie wondering what it would be like to play like "Mr Padroosky" (3m15s in the above video: "Sparky, oh, Sparky. It is I, your piano..." 1).  I always found its voice - an early example of vocoder synthesis - very melancholy and creepy, and it rather shaped my general perception of vocoder output as either sinister or naff.  However, it can be sublime when used creatively, as in Imogen Heap's Hide and Seek.

The preceding Sparky was the source of the nickname for the late Birmingham pianist, saxophonist and composer John "Sparky" Sly. Sly, who died aged 70 in 2005, was one of Gene Vincent's British Blue Caps.  I met this particular Sparky a couple of times, as I bought several harmoniums (harmonia?) from the music shop, Sparky's Magic Pianos in Digbeth, that he ran in later life.  An energetic performer for charity, he was a friendly and eccentric man; his exploits included taking a piano to Loch Ness to charm the monster with songs such as "Serenade for Nessie" and "Rock Around the Loch", and his shop used to have curios outside such as a suit of armour and an effigy of Elvis (see Light goes out on Sparky, Birmingham Evening Mail, September 3, 2005). Somewhere I still have the strange flyer he handed out, which outlined his claim to be descended from William Shakespeare. The core of it was the contention that Shakespeare and Sparky's ancestor the Shakespearean actor William Sly were the same person: see YouTube for his many expositions on the topic.  I guess there are far worse things to believe.

The number of other Sparkies is surprising.

1. That puts me off the piano straight away. As Geoff Pullum says in this press release for The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language
The forms with nominative pronouns sound ridiculously stuffy today. In present-day English, the copular verb takes accusative pronoun complements and so does "than." My advice would be this: If someone knocks at your door, and you say "Who's there?" and what you hear in response is "It is I," don't let them in. It's no one you want to know.
Not to mention the dubious flavour of the relationship between Sparky and the piano, which can play itself but takes suspicious relish in inviting Sparky to run his fingers over its keys. Its motives are further suspect in waiting so long before terminating the arrangement; if it really cared about Sparky's integrity as a piano player, it would have stopped long before the imposture reached concert performance level.


  1. Mr Sly sounds wonderful. I am always in favour of "energetic performers."

    As to your footnote bit that says of the piano: " Its motives are further suspect," clearly this is a question of free will.

  2. A moment of devastating disillutionment.

    To me, Sparky has always been SParky the Battery Boy ... but, checking it now, I find that he was really Torchy the Battery Boy ... our fifty+ year relationship has been built on a lie...

  3. Mr Sly sounds wonderful

    Yeah, he was a brilliant guy: quite often on TV, but we were totally impressed by him though personal dealings, when - this is weird but true - we bought a harmonium where we found a quite large sum of money stashed inside. Sparky was totally straight in helping us investigate the possible origin (i.e. previous owner). No result: it remains a total mystery. We gave it to charity (we took the view that however it got there, it wasn't destined for us and there would be no bad karma in directing it to good).