Saturday, January 24, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 32: Piano Karma

Back when we were struggling singers in New York, my friend Soprannie once mused that everyone -- at least everyone in our station in life -- had piano karma, a principle whereby, when it is ordained that you should own a piano, a piano comes your way. This principle was necessarily tinged with both superstition and fatalism, because it is nearly impossible for a struggling singer to acquire a piano, even a crappy one, in New York. But Soprannie had a piano, obtained under mysterious circumstances. And then one day, my own piano karma came up. An older, richer colleague -- a formidable coloratura soprano who had created the role of Madame Mao in John Adams's opera Nixon in China -- was getting a Steinway, and she offloaded her battered Ivers and Pond console onto me for pocket change.
(Trudy Ellen Craney, offloader of my karmic piano, as Madame Mao in Nixon in China. She enters during the ballet scene at 2:27.)

I was entirely grateful for what seemed like a gift from the fates. The piano had no overtones. When it went out of tune, the upper register would go sharp, and the lower register would go flat. Certain notes stuck, others didn't sound, and still others would reverberate on and on even if you weren't holding down the pedal. It had a crack in the soundboard. Nonetheless, it was a piano: a huge step up both in sound-making capacity and in prestige from the three-quarters-size keyboard that I'd had for years, and on which I'd learned all my repertoire. When we moved away from New York, the Ivers and Pond moved with us, over my husband's half-hearted objections. "It's a piano," I reminded him. In fact, the piano was my prize possession. By chance, a friend of mine from graduate school, an academic musicologist, was already living here in northern Appalachia, and was teaching a course in American minimalism -- the music of John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass -- at the local university. I told him that he should bring his students over to my house to see the piano upon which Trudy Ellen Craney had prepared the role of Madame Mao in Nixon in China.

The other day my piano tuner called. There was a piano in the area that he thought would be a good piano for me. It was a Kimball console in mint condition. I should go and take a look at it. 

I should note here that, while in New York City a cheap piano can't be gotten for love or money, northern Appalachia abounds in them. People are always getting rid of pianos here. I suppose it's because people die, people move, people go into assisted living; this is the kind of place that has an aging population, because young people with talent and ability leave here for places that have jobs. Pianos are a casualty of this migration, and also of the gradual movement away from the practice of making actual music on real instruments, so small pianos seem to be widely available in this area at prices that would be considered shocking in New York.

I went to look at the piano. It was a lovely little console, about the size of my karmic Ivers and Pond, but in much better condition, with a nice solid action. Evidently it had been rarely played. Kimball was at one time the biggest piano manufacturer in the world; there were Kimballs in many of my elementary-school music classrooms, as well as in the practice rooms I haunted as an undergraduate, but those markets are dominated now by Japanese makers. The Kimball's owner, a former band instructor, was in assisted living, and his brother was sorting out his possessions. The brother was a kind man, well into his eighties himself. His father, unbelievably, had been born in 1868, and had been an engineer on the Lehigh Valley Railroad. We had a lovely chat, I played the Kimball and sang a little, and he gave me the piano for free.

The new, free piano was moved in the other day, and my old Ivers and Pond moved out. The mover was a gruff man, who said in an accusatory way, "I don't know why you're getting a Kimball. You can't get rid of them. They're crap." I blanched for a moment, but I said goodbye to my old karmic piano, the instrument on which a great artist had learned a role that she created in a great and groundbreaking work of art.  I imagine that Trudy Ellen Craney had brought the Ivers and Pond from her childhood home in New Jersey to her loft in SoHo; it was that kind of piano, a family piano. Our old voice teacher, who lived in Washington, D.C., used to give lessons at Trudy's loft when she was in town, so, besides being a tool in the furtherance of a great work of art, that piano had accompanied a lot of other great singing besides (I do not mean my own; our teacher had some really fantastic students). I had had the Ivers and Pond for fifteen years, and it had taken me through a new stage in my career -- when I transitioned out of opera and into the concert performances that grew out of my archival research into rare repertoires -- and into new stages in my life as a graduate student, wife, and mother. My older son had recently begun playing it. 

I wanted to sing "Vecchia zimarra" to it, but there wasn't time. I wonder where it will go; to a church basement or a VFW hall, perhaps. And no one will ever know the part it played in the creation of a great opera, nor in the hidden joys and sorrows of the lives of a few struggling artists.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

I love your music and memory posts. So poignant thinking of the history of things. What we remember and what will be forgotten. Thank you for sharing.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Melanie.

Incidentally, today the live opera broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera happened to be La Bohème, in which Colline sings the "overcoat aria," "Vecchia zimarra," in Act IV, as he's about to pawn his overcoat to buy medicine for the dying Mimì. The opera is based on stories published in the mid-19th century by Henri Mürger, a French writer who wrote these marvelous vignettes of Parisian Bohemian life, and then was forgotten. He wrote about his character Rodolphe: "He was buried somewhere," and it was so for Mürger as well.

So much is forgotten. I always wonder about the history of things when I go to Goodwill, or even when I'm at the dry cleaner and I see the automated racks of people's clothes go by: whose clothes are they? What do their owners think, dream, love?

Otepoti said...

Nice post, P. The pianos, the musicians go, but the music lasts. Perhaps the new piano will receive an onslaught of piano duets, and the joy of seeing four small hands on the keys will dispel the regret for the ousted instrument. Introduce the youngsters to "Chopsticks' ;-D

Pentimento said...

Thanks, O. I have to say the Kimball, now that it's been tuned, is a vast improvement, as you will see next time you come 12,000 miles north.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

La Boheme! One of the few operas I've seen. In the years right after graduation a friend and I got season tickets to the Dallas opera for two seasons running. He was in grad school at Baylor getting his PhD in chemistry and drove up once a month to go to dinner and see the show with me. We never dated, but were good friends who enjoyed doing stuff together. It was a lonely period for me in some ways, I had lots of guy friends but no local girl friends and no plan for my life and no boyfriend, but those opera nights when I got to dress fancy and go someplace special were wonderful.

Thrift stores make me sad too. I'm such a packrat, I think it's partly because I can't detach things from the web of memories. Speaking of things... I know you weren't reading blogs very much of late, so you might have missed this post, which I thought you would like: On Things

Pentimento said...

La Bohème is wonderful. I've seen it and heard it many times, and I still can't keep from crying at the end. You would love the book of short stories it's based on, Melanie.

Thank you for directing me to your lovely post. I dream of having fewer things, and get angry and anxious about all the apparently useless stuff that surrounds me, but it's all either useful or important to me historically and emotionally, so I wouldn't know where to begin to purge any of it.

Enbrethiliel said...


I feel sad for the Ivers and Pond piano, though I understand why it would have been impractical to keep both it and the Kimball . . . and though I've discarded my share of old instruments. =P Perhaps you could still put a plaque on it so that future owners know its history?

I've also been blogging (though not on Shredded Cheddar) about the sense of loss and even betrayal I feel when I see how much of the past has been deliberately forgotten. It really is a squandering of the inheritance of the next generations.

Last week, I read the Platonic dialogue Ion, which uses magnetism as a metaphor for the way people are connected by art. The Muse, Socrates said, is the first magnet, which draws all artists--who, through being drawn, turn into other magnets, which then draw all men toward that centre. Inasmuch as you are attracted to art, you are part of this great network. And inasmuch as you can exercise the divinely bestowed ability to attract others to art, then you are close to the Muse. Or as Christians might say, to God. I mention this because I think that culture and traditions have a magnetism of their own, holding us together not just in the present, but through past, present, and future--and I feel (as I said in the other combox) that the last two generations decided to un-magnetise themselves and now the generation that is stepping up no longer has a sense of the centre of things.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

E., That's a dialogue I haven't read and I'm really liking the magnetism image. Art as a magnet drawing us into the center. Beauty drawing us to the heart of God.

Jenny said...

I want to believe in Piano Karma. We would need some House Karma before any Piano Karma would come into play. There is really no room for a piano in our living room. I hate that since my kids seem to be growing up without that physical interaction with a piano. Not that I am much more than a hack, I am total hack on the piano, but it was available anyway when I was a child.

We currently have a small, cheap keyboard tucked into a corner of my bedroom on which the children are more likely to play the prerecorded Star Wars theme than actually attempt to play music. Sigh.

Pentimento said...

Fervently wishing for piano karma to come your way, Jenny. LOVE MY PIANO.