The wonders of piano wire, resounding at City Hall
On Nov. 18, composer and percussionist Eli Keszler gives a live performance interacting with his own “Northern Stair Projection,” an installation transmitting sounds from outside Boston’s City Hall into its cavernous interior. The means of transmission — and one of the main visual elements — is unexpectedly interesting technology: piano wire, the metal strings normally pulled taut across that instrument’s frame. In fact, piano wire finds music not just taking advantage of technological advance, but driving it.
Brass and iron wire had been used in musical instruments since the early Renaissance, but it was soft and warped easily. In the 18th century, Europe finally caught up with the Middle East and India and began to make crucible steel, a high-carbon mixture that crystallized hard and pure. The first manufacturer to draw piano wire from such steel was Joseph Webster III, in Birmingham, England, in the 1830s. It changed the industry overnight.
Other firms rapidly followed suit. Wire from Martin Miller & Sohn of Vienna went into the bigger, louder pianos of the mid-19th century, which leveraged the new wire’s ability to be strung at greater tension. In America, Worcester’s Washburn & Moen became known for the polish of its wire, keeping rust at bay. The most driven maker was Hamburg’s Moritz Poehlmann, whose wire continually pushed industry standards. (Poehlmann is often cited in histories, thanks to laudatory mention in Alfred Dolge’s 1911 study “Pianos and Their Makers”; Dolge had reason to plug Poehlmann, being his American sales representative.)
Piano wire’s tensile strength, durability, and necessary exactness — a gauge variation of less than a thousandth of an inch is an audible anomaly — made it valuable beyond the concert stage. It was coiled around the ends of cannons and mortars as defense against explosive failure. (Indeed, a main source for the properties of various makes of turn-of-the-20th-century piano wire is a series of tests carried out in 1894, at the Watertown Arsenal, at the behest of the Secretary of War.) It became a favored material for making precision springs. It secured weather balloons and hoisted Hollywood actors. (The flying carpet in “The Thief of Baghdad”? The flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz”? Piano wire.)
Keszler’s use of the wire to carry signals echoes how the technology even enabled modern communications. Armed with institutional knowledge, in 1866, Webster & Horsfall, the corporate descendant of Joseph Webster’s firm, manufactured the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Sounds, messages, ingenuity, innovation: all transmitted via piano wire.
Non-Event presents Eli Keszler performing in dialogue with “Northern Stair Projection,” Nov. 18, 7 p.m. at Boston City Hall. Free; reservations recommended. www.nonevent.org/upcoming/eli_keszlerboston_city_hall_fr