So this has nothing to do with social networking or recording ideas or songwriting tips. It is just a story some fifteen years or so in the making of the search – a journey of sorts – for the perfect piano. Maybe someone coming across this can relate. Of finding that one instrument on which to bear it all. I of course think pianists are a passionate lot and that the piano is one of mankind’s greatest inventions, but obviously there are many instruments and perhaps many musicians for which this kind of passion applies.
This then is the first of a three-part story of an age-old Bechstein piano.
part one. [imperfection]
There really is no better sound in this world than a just-tuned piano other than perhaps none at all as in complete silence found only high up in the mountains on glaciers far removed from everything watching clouds scrape over ice without making a sound. Without the cancellations of duplexed and triplexed strings beating out of sync the piano gains a devouring volume. Nearly too much for this little living room in which I find myself this afternoon. It has a certain power to it that it does not have at any other time and a perfection in its imperfections. Made especially clear through the routine and drudgery of tuning where only one string at a time is tuned and where it is easy to get quite used to the rather insipid sound that creates. But then – once having finished all the keys -then the task begins of tuning the unisons – over two hundred of them in all – and the sound begins to take shape. Builds on itself the physics of it all beautiful.
After far too much time spent on keyboards in Logic samples stored as binary codes in this whirring Mac beside me the inexplicable acoustic power of a hundred-and-thirty-nine-year-old German grand piano strings copper wound by now-antiquated machines and hammers voiced by delicate hands nearly a century-and-a-half ago the soundwaves upon soundwaves multiplying on top of each other until nearly exploding is an absolutely phenomenal sensation to behold.
Fifteen years ago now I think. I could not explain at the time why without a place to put it living on maple-lined quiet streets in tiny upstairs apartments up creaky flights of stairs making pennies an hour all of twenty years old completely out of nowhere I talked myself into the idea that I must have a grand piano. Absurd it was. And so after scrawling calculations on scraps of paper and more scraps of paper adding up and subtracting from and figuring out how to stretch every last dime maybe going without food so that I could sit at a grand piano and bang away annoying all within earshot I began The Search.
This entailed Friday nights raining and dark autumn Northwest rains and all in full swing driving from Tacoma to Seattle and all points in between including the Bösendorfer dealer in Portland visiting every piano dealer I could find. Some were gracious and took me seriously. Others told me to quiet down me hammering big fat chords that there were lessons going on in the back and what is this twenty-year-old doing looking at the grand pianos anyhow surely we could interest him in a more reasonable upright there that one in the far corner?
And then one afternoon I found myself wandering into the Helmer’s Music in Tacoma. I had just about nailed my search down to a five-foot-seven Weber I came across at the Helmer’s in Federal Way. ‘Check out the six-footer down in Tacoma before you decide’ the guy up there told me and sent me on my way south.
And so I wandered the store from one far corner to the other of course because I had to maybe there was something else afterall at last finding the six-foot Weber stashed amongst a handful of other Asian grands and having a go on it. Hard to compare but I wasn’t sold on the few additional inches which of course meant a few additional thousands of dollars.
Wrapping up on it I finished circling the store and there in the back corner a mahogany 5’9″ piano impeccably beautiful and so I snuck up to it for a closer look. Hmm … ‘C. Bechstein’ it said on the fallboard. Never heard of it. ‘Pianoforte-Fabrick von C. Bechstein Berlin’ graced the soundboard. German. I was drawn to it. And so I took a seat at the bench and held my breath. Played exactly three chords. And that was it. I was done for. I must have a Bechstein grand before I die I told myself in an instant before exhaling still sitting at the bench running my fingers across the keys.
The search was over.
Too bad for me scraping pennies together to pony up for just the Korean-made Weber that this particular German Bechstein had a pricetag of ninety-three thousand. Dollars.
But it didn’t matter. I would own one someday.
‘Weber WG57 5’7” ebony 6 mos sacrifice $8k obo’ the newspaper clipping I found tucked in a box heaping full of music stuff from years past read. Sacrifice. The word broke my heart.
I guess I only had it for six months that five-foot-seven polished ebony Weber grand for which I had spent all those months looking. The advert was dated November seventh nineteen-ninety-nine and the paperwork stuffed in a once nice but now ragged Weber sales folder from April of the same year. No doubt the worst financial decision I had ever made buying on a complete impulse sitting on kitchen counters in my sisters’ old rickety second-floor apartment above Thomas Street on Capitol Hill over hot chocolates and potato casseroles and Nantucket Nectars I ended up keeping a mere six months before having to sell it losing several thousand dollars in the process several thousand dollars this twenty-two-year-old really did not have to lose.
But no regrets.
I look back and remember certain moments on it as if they were yesterday. An evening alone a theme raging in my head going over to it crammed into a corner of a living room barely bigger than the piano old worn hardwood floors sitting down and banging it out everything exploding in that moment the theme to what will become the fortissimo opening to a second concerto for piano and orchestra. The enormous B-flat minor chord as loud as I could hammer it on that five-seven. A switch to the D chord enormous. The fat copper bass strings were thunderous their sound rebounding off the plaster to fill the small space with an immense wall of sound unbearable. The sound was big but yet not big enough. I always wanted it to be bigger as big as what I heard in my head and the Weber could not suffice.
That’s not why I sold it though six months after all the work I put into searching for it months and months almost as long as I ended up owning it. But I had to in order to get to No. 8056. I just didn’t know it at the time. It was all a progression of sorts.
And the cost was worth it. The memories continued to pile on top of each other.
Putting together a film of short recordings for my older sister on eight-millimeter digital videotape of me playing various snippets pulled from reams of comb-bound sketch books and improvising the rest as I fumbled with them leafing though the pages scrawled with ink. The chord change from D-flat to E-flat minor huge an ending to a concerto yet to be written for now years and years all still in my head. An idea in F-sharp minor furious uncontained. Another in E-flat. I asked for the audio cassette recording a few months ago I had mailed to her years and years back but have yet to dust off an old cassette deck stashed somewhere in order to listen to it again and reminisce. Maybe pull some ideas. Work them out, develop them some more. A theme, just an idea still, to the second movement of another concerto for piano and orchestra sketched out on the keys of that Weber. In those six short months I even moved it from that first tiny apartment it called home to another tiny apartment from where it would leave me to move onto other hands – other notes waiting to be played.
But no piano I have ever owned or played has escaped me. I seem to have memories of them all.
A grand piano in the middle of the wide-open orchestra rehearsal room at the neighborhood college back in flat and muddy Missouri close enough that I would walk to crisp autumn nights crunching leaves over the campus lawn finding the piano through the window sitting there alone cracking the door open wandering over to it sitting down and playing interrupted at some point by a security guard not amused with my ramblings. Must have seen the light or heard the racket and came looking. I never returned. A Steinway D my sister Kathy the one to whom I gave the low-fi recording made on the Weber years before that had talked the janitor into letting her know where it was stashed on the stage of her college’s auditorium. So one night we snuck in and pulled it out from its little climate-controlled vault out onto the stage her disappearing quietly to go sit somewhere up high in the mezzanine while I banged away on it at one point a student maybe in charge of watching out for hooligans like us maybe just passing through the halls walked up beside me on the middle of the stage and without missing a note of whatever I was fumbling to play I remember looking up and muttering ‘hey’ and he maybe assuming I had permission or maybe not wanting to bother me just playing the piano nodded and left us be. A Kawai grand in the sanctuary of a Mormon church in a proper Midwest town the secretary kind enough to let me in and play for maybe half an hour. A crap old Wurlitzer spinet I was renting from Sherman Clay in a crap old apartment in Tukwila just north of the airport one night alone watching the movie ‘Shine’ for the first time halfway through getting up stumbling over to it in the dark clicking on the dim piano light and throwing down the beginning motif to a first concerto for piano and orchestra influenced heavily in that very instant that single moment in the dark by the raging piano of Sergei Rachmaninov. A broken-down upright stuffed in a practice room at UPS in North Tacoma a farewell performance of sorts to a now lost love. The WG57. In time but before No. 8056 another ebony polished Weber this time an upright W121.
My mother’s tiny woodgrain Kimball spinet and Beethoven and my first piano sonata in D-flat.
At the top of the scrap of notebook paper folded and torn I found in that same box as the newspaper clipping it read ‘penny toss!’ Scribbled in columns beneath were numbers dollar amounts of rents and bills and such. I guess after all the math all the addition and subtraction and crossing out and refiguring I was leaving it all – the decision to buy not any piano but a grand piano ten thousand some dollars – to chance. To chance by flipping a coin. Whichever side – I can’t recall – that I decided would seal the deal and make the Weber mine even for those short six months had apparently landed right side up. Definitely not by chance.
The moving slip from A&J reads December eighth nineteen-ninety-nine. It too is folded and worn. I saved all these scraps of paper. I’m nostalgic. It escapes me though at this point who it was that bought it from me. But I remember the two guys coming in. Taking off the one leg on the front left corner and lowering my piano – for only such a short time already someone else’s – down gently then from that awkward position heaving it up onto its long side to remove the other two legs. Lifting it with a collective grunt from there up onto the cart then out the front door. Down the stairs. Into the back of their truck. And gone.
But that was just the beginning.
Because of these scraps of paper mostly the one with the columns of rents and bills and such and the note to toss a penny I went searching without knowing or without reason or even an understanding then to find a five-foot-nine beautiful but more than just beautiful piano that stirred something in me the instant I played it a perfect combination of the airwaves around me from the copper and steel strings the spruce soundboard it all handmade in Berlin by a piano manufacturer named C. Bechstein of which before that moment I had never heard.
It would be many more years until I would find mine.