Ada, her nine year old daughter and her piano arrive to an arranged marriage in the remote bush of nineteenth century New Zealand.
Of all her belongings, her husband refuses to transport the piano and it is left behind on the beach. Unable to bear its certain destruction, Ada strikes a bargain with an illiterate tattooed neighbour. She may earn her piano back if she allows him to do certain things while she plays; one black key for every lesson.
The arrangement draws all three deeper and deeper into a complex emotional, sexual bond remarkable for its naïve passion and frightening disregard for limits.
In writing for THE PIANO, I had to establish not only the usual repertoire of music for the film, but a specific repertoire of piano music that would have been Ada's repertoire as a pianist. I began creating her a folio of material that I imagined she had in her head, that her fingers carried around with her, almost as if she had been the composer.
Initially I was unsure as to how precisely to pitch the style: it had to be a 'possible' mid-nineteenth century music but not pastiche and obviously written in 1992. But then I had the perception that, since Ada was from Scotland, it was logical to use Scottish folk and popular songs as the basis of our music. Once I hit on that idea the whole thing fell into place.
It's as though I was writing the music of another composer who happened to live in Scotland, then New Zealand in the mid 1850s. Someone who was obviously not a professional composer or pianist. So there had to be a modesty to it.
It was a real challenge to write this music, because it is absolutely crucial to the film. If you delve into the reasons for the piano's existence, you realise that the establishing of a musical language is crucial. Since Ada doesn't speak, the piano music doesn't simply have the usual expressive role but becomes a substitute for her voice. The sound of the piano becomes her character, her mood, her expressions, her unspoken dialogue. It has to convey the messages she is putting across about her feelings towards Baines, during the piano lessons, and these differ from lesson to lesson as the relationship, state of sexual bargaining and passion develop. I've had to create a kind of aural scenography which is as important as the locations, as important as the costumes. Ada's music is described by one of the characters in the film as 'like a mood that passes through you…a sound that creeps into you'.
In performance, the pieces can be played in any order; any number (including just one) can be played on occasion, and if played as a suite individual numbers may be repeated. It should be emphasised that Nos.1 (Big My Secret) and 6 (The Heart Asks Pleasure First) are the key pieces.
© Michael Nyman