“It’s a piano.”
It was one of those upright monstrosities many of us remember. Full of creaks and groans, with ivory keys like aged teeth, all tobacco stained and chipped. The toothy, gapped leer it gave me upon entering the house was more interesting than fearful. It took my dad and a few of his bulky friends powered by pizza and beer to move it into its prized location. The new arrival took up precious real estate in a shabby living room that was already bulging with the paraphernalia of five boisterous children.
I loved it instantly. (I should mention that I was only four years old at the time, but that is an age when impressions are formed with astonishing vividness.)
It had Presence.
It emanated something new. Something of old worlds and ancient wisdom, of gnarled hands and craftmanship, and somehow…the singing of stars. Naturally I could articulate none of this at the time. I only sensed within it an innate power to do something wonderful.
It was a thing, but such a mighty thing it was. We couldn’t afford it we didn’t have space for it the dining table had to be moved to accommodate it no one in our family could play it but its greatness had just been heaved, shoved and groaned into place against the wall. And my father was smiling. The tough ex-Marine ex-boxer ex-dancer of uncommon grace was smiling with pure joy.
Something significant had just happened. My father rarely smiled with pure joy.
At first, there was cacophony. When piano keys are struck by eager childish fingers, much more happens than a frightening eruption of noise. There are amazing vibrations. I could feel this curious phenomenon because I had squeezed my little four year old body between the back of the piano and the wall.
As the instrument was for my older sister at that point no one was interested in me or my reaction to it. No one noticed I had disappeared in to the piano. I wanted so desperately to understand this new thing. I pressed my flushed, excited cheek against an old wood rib at the back and let the piano twang into my head. It resonated thunder, and was horribly out of tune. What did I know? What did I know of vibrational energy? Or of tight bundles of string tension that can exceed twenty tons? Did I know that piano strings must be made from the toughest steel; not only because they endure constant high tension, they are subject to repeated blows? What did I know?
In the late nineties scientists discovered a black hole that was singing. That was the best description they could think of for the sonorous pulse it had been emitting for millions of years. We could detect this ancient ‘singing’ only recently, and it was in something like the key of B flat. Is there an echo here of Pythagorean music of the spheres? Do the planets and stars form a type of celestial clockworks that chime out colossal tones?
My next piano, like my teen years, was a product of the seventies. Newer was supposed to be better so we bought a lusterless Kimball, of no particular vintage or story. It was just new. It possessed a particle soundboard of indifferent quality. I have no idea what sort of wood it was. Nothing exciting ever happened on that piano. Still, it was an important box with strings. I kept playing, wondered about boys, wrote some bad poetry, and started to explore Bach. And somewhere the empty spaceless voids were still singing while no one listened.
Then I married. Even in the honeymoon of sweet distraction, I knew something was terribly wrong. One month went by, then two. A sickening dread came to me, but I knew. I had to confess. I had no piano. I had to have the singing box with strings.
My father had just died. On the dance floor. He simply dropped out of my mother’s arms. In mid step. And that was that.
Anguish lingered in slow motion aftermaths. A small inheritance of possibilities rippled past. I took my share—oh the hateful money.
I bought a piano. A cherrywood console of consolation. A box of rich warm tones.
Now the city apartment had The Box. Impassioned, liquid sonorities flowed out on to the street; I turned grief into sound.
The power of the box was at work.
I could dispel a crowd of pot smoking thugs by playing Rachmaninov louder than their angry babble; a cluster of loitering latte-sippers would coalesce on the street below while listening to a Chopin nocturne drift out our opened windows. I could play my father’s smile and give a call out to anti matter in the frightful void in case it was listening.
In time we moved to a small town, into a vintage house that sat within view of the resonant sea. There were gardens and scented roses, and always the sound of the sea. For my piano, I ‘inherited’ a wonderful old blind tuner and his faithful Labrador. My piano was never better cared for, and my acoustics had never been so sublime.
The stage was set for something exciting to happen.
It started with a want ad, and a bit of casual conversation over white wine and margarita shrimp.
“Did you see the ad for the Steinway?”
“Oh yeah. Crazy.” Said I. “Like a dream but not. You don’t dream about things like that.”
“We should go look.”
“Why?…I don’t want to.”
I didn’t want to look. Who wants to get a glimpse of perfection only to have ‘access denied’?
I looked. I was overcome. Of 1879 vintage, it sat and glowed in innumerable shades of incandescent beauty. Of old worlds and old woods; of grain and resonance not just any tree of yesterday possesses. And the strings…almost six feet of big, shining percussive potential that rippled out to the murmuring ocean and returned in lilting waves.
Its current home, when I first saw it, was a concrete garage; reminiscent of an abandoned airplane hangar that had become a glue factory for castaway piano relics. There was only one tiny wood stove for warmth, and it was surrounded—guarded by—several chain-smoking ex-cons. The experience was as incongruous as seeing an aging diva trapped in a dumpster.
We brought her home. The diva. The chain smoking ex-cons expertly moved her and lovingly set her up. (they were a motley crew of soulful music lovers, as it turned out). For the how of the rescue, I refer you to my Ways and Means Committee.
But with this new piano came my next tuner—a slouching hulk of a gentle giant who played Debussy, Brahms and Chopin with the delicacy of a puff pastry. His tiny dog Minuet accompanied him every time he came to tune, and, when he was finished, he would play Clair de Lune while I stroked Minuet’s silky ears.
In the garden roses bloomed and baby deer frolicked.
I’m not exaggerating. I’ll even mention Charlie, my dog. He loved music. Absolutely loved it. Sitting at my feet while I played, looking much like this. This was Charlie’s signature pose. Sometimes he would place his big clumsy paw on my foot that worked the damper pedal. His sighs and snufflings of contentment became part of the resonance.
Must I leave this picture? Yes, I must, for then came darkness and so much that followed is blank.
Strange hands, lifting hands, then my own hands resting awkwardly on hospital sheets. I recognized none of them. My ears rebelled against the ugly beeps of monitors; chronic, cankered beeps that I couldn’t shut out. Unnatural sounds that formed a hateful chorus from a Greek tragedy chanting “die”.
The music went silent. The piano movers came and I was not there. That was the good thing. I was not there to watch it go. But I was going, too. It didn’t matter.
Somewhere anti matter was singing in deep booms of awful reverberation.
If the sound from the singing black holes is just now reaching us after millions of years, where did my sounds go? The sounds from the old upright in the sixties and the Kimball and the cherrywood console and big diva from 1879 that reflected back the flickering light of the ocean…are they still resonating? Have they reached another type of sounding board, where the old songs, the old laughter, is still being heard?
Light did return. So did the music. The hands regained some, but not all, of dexterity. Music came back to the inside of my mind. I gradually awoke to a new reality. I had lost Rachmaninov, Chopin, and so much more, but something of their sounds were still there. I could still play. I was still a flushed and eager four year old with my body pressed against the sound board.
The Box with strings, however, was different. It was so very different. There was no replacing my beauteous 1879. But I went and sampled pianos; the replacement options. I played by inches. Life came back by inches. I went for as many inches as I could. Why not? I finally found one that was just right. Lovely crystalline tones.
She’s a vintage beauty from 1920, with a ‘story’. Story is important when you’re trying to fit a 5’9” mahogany box of sound in a cramped living space. Our new life. Life. What a sweet resonance that word has.
I play gratitude now, along with memories of other music. I play in the key of B flat. Usually minor. Gratitude is always in a minor key, for gratitude can only come at a price. That is my key. Mine and the black holes in space.
Our home in the city is four stories up. There are tops of trees outside the window, and when I play, the birds sing in answer. A flock of finches will begin to gather–perhaps a few sparrows– there are certainly twitters in little undulations aplenty as the music begins. The chickadees hang upside down from a limb and peer inside with a sweet curiosity that makes my heart ache for their innocence.
If this sounds like a scene from Snow White—well, perhaps. If you can imagine Snow White with a Steinway. And scars.
I am beginning to resonate again. And somewhere a black hole is playing in the key of Bb. It finally found me. It’s playing my father’s smile and the glint of light on the ocean. I’d like to think it’s playing for Charlie, too. He would love that.
Yes, it’s just a box, a wooden box on three legs. Inside it bears scars and strings of the toughest steel.
It’s the world to me.
[You asked me what is my most precious Thing (as in object), and I can tell you it’s a piano.]
[And you asked me about my experience with a favorite instrument. This is the long version.]