Pianos are to Will Pickvance what a herd of wild horses are to a mythic rancher on some dusty frontier.
When Pickvance talks about pianos—which is to say every time he draws breath—he channels the poetic tone of a horse whisperer.
“Some are heavy, some have a sweet tone, others are brittle,” he says, elbows pressed on his trusty upright piano, a faraway tune in his voice. “Some have a sumptuous quality and you can’t stop playing them; others after a couple of token tunes you’re happy to say goodbye. But they are all characters.”
In his own charming way, Pickvance is a musical frontiersman. Well, as much as one can be armed with a jolly Dickensian surname, a mop of unkempt blonde hair, and a wardrobe that hasn’t met a cord jacket it hasn’t liked.
We meet in his office at Summerhall, all exposed grey bricks and keyboards of all shapes and sizes. There’s a 1960s Sheltone Companion electronic keyboard balancing on Bambi legs by his desk. We pass a dismembered piano on the stairs. “And next door is my harpsichord,” he says.
In the middle of it all is his upright Yamaha piano, which he is gamely attempting to teach me how to play. I had lessons for a year when I was seven, only to abandon them after my concerted and persistent tear-filled campaign. And now I’m back, attempting to commune with this musical monolith of childhood misery. Within minutes he teaches me a minor key – that shivery, uncomfortable sound; that mood music to forced lessons.
Pickvance understands. Overcoming the straight-backed starchiness of many first encounters with the piano is one of his grand, pioneering ambitions. When I ask him how to physically approach the piano, he takes the Jerry Lee Lewis route and stomps his right foot on the keys.
Such unbound energy is found in his two shows this Fringe. His acclaimed 2013 performance, Anatomy of the Piano, is returning but in a new form.
This metaphorical and literal deconstruction of his beloved instrument, part of this year’s Made in Scotland showcase, has retuned as a family show, with a young Pickvance discovering how music is just as transportative as a space rocket.
He is also unveiling a new show, Pianomorphosis, a mixture of music (Bach, Radiohead, Fats Waller) and storytelling built around his formative years playing a concert Bechstein grand piano at Skibo Castle.
After graduating with a biology degree, and then stints in an Italian Elvis tribute band and on cruise ships, the self-taught Pickvance found himself as the in-house pianist raconteur at the luxury Highland retreat, most notable for being the site of Madonna’s 2000 wedding.
“I would sit in the middle of this huge room with enormous fireplaces,” he says. “The focal point would be the piano. Some nights would be low key, other nights everyone would congregate around the piano and all kinds of shenanigans, stories and songs would ensue.”
He recalls one evening when the singer Robbie Williams turned up and spent half an hour getting the right key before a ‘spontaneous’ rendition of Angels. Apparently, Williams’ dad’s off-the-cuff take on the great American Song Book was much more entertaining.
And it is this Pickvance—the Tom Waits loquaciousness harmonising with Wes Anderson whimsy version—that will invite the audience to congregate round his piano in Pianomorphosis.
“I want to create the convivial atmosphere of a salon,” he says. “I want the audience to feel part of this interaction between the piano and I.”
Lean in. The piano whisperer is speaking.