Chad Lawson Wants To Revive Piano For The 'Spotify Generation'

Mar 24, 2018
Originally published on March 28, 2018 6:29 am

In an era when music programs are being cut from schools and software has made instrumentation cheaper and more accessible, people aren't rushing out to buy acoustic instruments.

In 2000, 105,000 new pianos were sold in the United States. In 2009, only 30,000 new pianos were sold. Composer, pianist and Steinway & Sons artist Chad Lawson is trying to revive interest in the piano by modernizing it for what he calls the "Spotify generation." Lawson created his latest album Re:Piano armed with his instrument and an iPad full of digital effects.

Lawson says that since the 1700s, listeners have had the same notion of what the piano is supposed to sound like, and that popular music doesn't often sound like that anymore. He says that a lot of the millennial generation hasn't been exposed to piano the way older generations have.

"They haven't really grown up with a piano in the house, or if they have, they don't know how to turn it on," Lawson says. "I wanted to say, 'Hey, let's take something like the piano and let's put some new paint on it. Let's give it a new voice.'"

On tracks like "All Is Truth," Lawson creates piano patterns, then loops them with the iPad and uses effects that create tinkling, metal sounds in the background. He layers his loops to create an ethereal texture that obscures and transforms the instrument from its origin.

Unlike his traditional songwriting process of creating chords and then a melody, Lawson says composing Re:Piano was more improvisational. His live performances of the album are that way, too.

"When I walk out on stage with the iPad, I start with a pattern. It's something that I've not prepared," he says. "I just build upon that." He compares the improvised result to a dish on the reality cooking show Chopped.

"I love limitations," he says. "That's the great thing about it. You have just this to work with. What can you do?"

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

School music programs have been cut. Guitars aren't so cool as they used to be. Piano sales have been dropping for decades. Chad Lawson, the composer, pianist and Steinway artist, has tried to revive interest in the piano by wrapping it in a layer of technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "THE FAIREST THINGS")

SIMON: He hopes to appeal to what he calls the Spotify generation by pairing his acoustic instrument with an iPad full of digital effects. The result is a new CD - "Re: Piano," as in repeating piano.

Chad Lawson joins us from the studios of WDAV in Charlotte, N.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHAD LAWSON: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: How did you make all those sounds?

LAWSON: Oh, man - by being curious, to be honest. You know, we have this idea of what the piano is supposed to sound like, right? It's been around since the 1700s. And I wanted to rethink it. I wanted to look at it in a different light.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "THE FAIREST THINGS")

LAWSON: A lot of these people that I kind of nickname the Spotify generation - they haven't really grown up with a piano in the house. Or if they have, they don't know how to turn it on. So it's all about exposure, right? And so I wanted to say, hey. Let's take something, like the piano, and let's put some new paint on it. Let's give it a new voice.

SIMON: Well, let's get to particulars - track two, for instance.

LAWSON: OK.

SIMON: And that is "All Is Truth"

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "ALL IS TRUTH")

LAWSON: So the first couple of seconds there, you're hearing just a piano pattern. And then I'm looping within the iPad. Next, after that, you hear these little tinkly kind of metal kind of sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "ALL IS TRUTH")

LAWSON: That's just piano that I've put a certain filter on called a high-pass filter, and that's what gives it this unique sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "ALL IS TRUTH")

LAWSON: And then that loops for a little while, and then I bring in another section. So I'm basically just building layer upon layer upon layer on this album.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "ALL IS TRUTH")

SIMON: And how does that affect your composition - what you can do or what you want to achieve?

LAWSON: The way I approached this album was unlike anything I've ever done before. This album actually took probably about three times as long as my other albums that I've done. Usually, it's you sit down, and you write down some chords, and you create a melody. And then you're done. But with this, I wanted to look at everything different. And so I said, you know, I'm going to just explore different effects, different ways of making the sound change. And then I'm going to build upon that. It was draining but also very exciting because I had this plethora of things that I could choose from to create all of these different sounds. And that just completely changed my approach, my - how I wrote this album.

SIMON: Draining for you, the composer - but the music sounds very calming, very soothing.

LAWSON: I love that - right? - because, I mean, we're in a world where everything is pulling at us constantly. And so this is kind of the antithesis of that - to where it's like, hey, you know what? It's OK to breathe. It's OK just to - like, just sit.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "ALL IS TRUTH")

SIMON: Let's listen to another soothing selection (laughter) - "Love Is The Flower Of Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "LOVE IS THE FLOWER OF LIFE")

SIMON: Oh, wow. What was that?

LAWSON: That's called beat repeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "LOVE IS THE FLOWER OF LIFE")

LAWSON: So when you're hitting the note, it actually just does a very quick repetition of the note. A lot of this came from the fact that the audiences I play, again, are very young, and so they're masters at the iPad. And so I wanted to find a way of connecting with this audience, you know? Most of my audience is actually in Europe, and a lot of times, it's playing festivals. And I wanted to be able to walk out on the stage with something that they were familiar with.

SIMON: Do you ever hear from purists who think this is not a good thing to do to the piano?

LAWSON: You know, I respect that. I respect their input.

SIMON: I mean, I can imagine people going, you know, the piano was good enough for Chopin. It was good enough for Glenn Gould.

LAWSON: (Laughter) Yes, but, I mean, unless something progresses, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

LAWSON: All right. So in 2000, in the U.S., there were 100,000 pianos - new pianos that were sold. Last year, there were 19,000 new pianos sold.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

LAWSON: That's a dramatic difference.

SIMON: Yeah.

LAWSON: So there has to be a new spin on this and say there is something else here that we can work with, that we can do to encourage and to educate and to expose.

SIMON: When you perform in concert, is it difficult to do this - if I might put it this way, this electronic shtick you do?

LAWSON: (Laughter) It's actually less nerve-racking than you would imagine because a lot of it is really exploratory. So when I walk out onstage with the iPad, I start with a pattern. It's something that I've not prepared. I just build upon that. So the audience is seeing me build something completely from scratch.

SIMON: That does sound exciting - like watching the soup made right in front of you.

LAWSON: Yeah. It's like "Chopped" with music.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Open your bag. You have five notes.

LAWSON: (Laughter) Oh, well, and that's the thing - is, like, I love limitations. That's the great thing about it. It's just like, you have just this to work with. What can you do?

SIMON: Chad Lawson - his new CD, "Re: Piano." Thanks so much for being with us.

LAWSON: Scott, thanks so much. It's been a lot of fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "CLOSING RHYME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.