The Casual Blog

Tag: Steinway

A piano tuning and a ballet board meeting

My Steinway grand piano (an A) is a gorgeous musical instrument, but it is subject to entropy. It needs a regular tuning, and lately a few notes in the lower-middle range sounded overly bright to me.

On Saturday, Phil Romano, a master Steinway technician, tuned it and did some voicing by needling the hammers. Phil was about to take off on another tour with Paul McCartney, and shared some interesting stories of Sir Paul’s performing in the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics, and South America.

With the benefit of Phil’s good tuning and voicing, I had a gratifying session with my instrument on Saturday. Recently I’ve felt a bit stuck on the same musical plateau. Although this has happened from time to time over the years, each time it’s uncomfortable, as I wonder whether I’ve gone as far as I can go. An essential part of the joy and challenge of the classical tradition, for me, is forward movement. It’s true that I’m now playing better than I ever imagined I would, but still, I would see no point to practicing if I didn’t expect to achieve greater technical and artistic mastery. This is one of the reasons it is so important to have a teacher — to get you unstuck when you’re stuck.

Anyhow, today felt as if I was getting unstuck. For a devoted student of the piano, there are few things more pleasurable than a freshly tuned Steinway. I played some of my favorite Chopin, Debussy, and Liszt works, and made some headway on my assignments from Olga — Rachmaninoff’s Elegy and Chopin’s etude op. 25 no. 12. Also, for a special treat, I read through some of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The Waltz of the Flowers really works as a piano piece! I’d like to polish it up for the holidays if I can find the time.

Speaking of the Nutcracker, this week I had my first meeting as a new member of the board of directors of the Carolina Ballet. I’m really pleased to be able to help support this wonderful company. It’s also good to meet other people who really love ballet. As Ricky Weiss pointed out at the meeting, not everyone likes it, and some actively dislike it, but those who care about it care a lot.

In his report, he noted that we have a particularly strong group of dancers now. In the all Balanchine program, he had four different Apollo’s. It is, he said, an extraordinary thing, particularly in a company of this size, to have four males who are all capable of fully expressing this difficult role. (In an interesting coincidence, this morning the dance critic of the New York Times discussed Balanchine’s Stravinsky ballets and led off the discussion with Apollo.)

There are lots of things to be happy about, including the company’s large number of performances, the large number of new works, and the consistently high standard of performance. Weiss noted that the current group of dancers have achieved a high level of individuality, by which I think he meant they are artists who express not only the classical tradition but also themselves.

At the same time, there is a real concern about company finances. This is no great surprise. Since the recession of 2008, times have been hard for lots of people, including lots of arts organizations. But realizing this does not lessen the difficulty for this particular organization. I continue to think that there are more people around here who would enjoy ballet who haven’t yet discovered it, including some who would find it rewarding to help support the company. I hope so.

A recording session at Manifold Studios with Michael Tiemann, John Q. Walker, and the ghost of Oscar Peterson

Last weekend I attended a recording session at Maniford Recording, my friend Michael Tiemann’s new recording facility in Chatham County near Jordan Lake. Michael’s been working on this project for four years, and it is clearly a labor of love. The setting is rural piedmont North Carolina, surrounded by farms and forest with lots of songbirds. (I heard a whippoorwill singing ardently for the first time this year or last.) The architect was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and incorporated the golden ratio throughout the design. Michael explained his his purpose in terms of making great recordings with a total devotion to truthful sound. I noted that this is swimming against the tide of contemporary culture, which Michael conceded, but he noted that tides can turn.

The recording was done by software developed by Zemph, a company founded by John Q. Walker, who was also at the session. The objective was to reengineer a recording by Oscar Peterson (jazz pianist) and Ray Brown (bass) from 1949. A hundred-year-old Steinway that had once been at Carnegie Hall had been fitted out to play itself using Zemph’s software, and the Zemph folks had created a new instrument to reproduce the bass. The sound was uncanny. It was unsettling, but kind of moving, to see the piano keys moving, and the sound had authority.

I went through a long period of studying and really loving jazz. I still enjoy it from time to time. I particularly enjoy music from the big band era. But jazz sometimes gets more reverences than it deserves, based in part on the myth of improvisation. The non-musician perceives improvisation as a bold experiment, but it’s usually not. What improvisation mostly means is either variations on prior melodies or laying prefabricated riffs in various orders on top of fairly simple, repetitious chord structures. It can sometimes have energy and heart, but it can also be fairly boring. When I started to feel a little bored, I found my way back to the Western European musical tradition, in which composers wrote down ideas so rich that we still find, centuries afterwards, it interesting, and sometimes transcendently moving, to confront them. I don’t get that from Oscar Peterson.

John graciously allowed me try out the pianos after the session. I found the Carnegie Steinway a bit loose and diffuse, but the Hamburg Steinway was wonderful — brilliant colors and clarity. I worried that the reproduction equipment, including circuit boards attached to the keys, could affect either the sound or the action, but I couldn’t perceive any such effects. I played a bit of Chopin, including the Minute Waltz, and a bit of Debussy’s First Arabesque.

I enjoyed seeing the technology for recreating the performance, and the mixing session in the studio. And it was inspiring to see how passionate Michael and John were about the music. I have a soft spot for people that are absolutely passionate about art that will never win a popularity contest or make a dollar. It’s a reminder that art matters at the most intimate human level, and can inspire love so intense as surpass all rationality.

Piano v. synthesizer

After several lessons, Olga, my new piano teacher, recently departed for Rumania for the summer, leaving me with a lot of musical ideas, but with no particular urgency to practice up for the next lesson. And so I found a sliver of time and energy to explore an area I’d been curious about for a while: musical technology and synthesizers.

My computing devices contain synthesizers and virtual studios, and after some casual experimenting I realized there’s a lot of potential for musical fun. Without any particular effort or expenditure, I have at my disposal musical tools that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars thirty years ago. But figuring out how to make them more expressive takes some time and energy.

My first objective was to make some techno dance music. It’s odd, I know, for a person with predominantly classical tastes, but I sometimes enjoy listening to this stuff when driving for fun. GarageBand, an Apple program, includes prefab loops that can be used for this purpose, and I soon had some sonic space that was reasonably entertaining. I then got curious about what else could be done, and started to experiment with non-pre-fab elements. It was sufficiently fun that I bought a cheap MIDI keyboard and a little wireless auxiliary speaker.

This was a significant step, because I have a strong prejudice against electronic keyboards. The interface looks like that of a real piano, which is deceptive, because the two instruments are very different. A great piano, like my Steinway grand, allows for a subtle connection between the human and the string. The basic technology is now antique (19th century), but still, they have thousands of parts and are said to be among the most complicated mechanical machines on earth. Each piano is also an individual, in a way that each electronic keyboard is not. The wood comes from particular trees that grew as they grew in a particular place during particular years.

A great piano has the capacity for nuance. I used to think of a key on the keyboard as similar to an on-off switch, but Olga persuaded me this is a mistake bordering on sacrilege. Her thing is to focus on nuances of touch and the associated nuances of sound. She hears details so tiny that it took a while for her to convince me they really existed, another period for me to begin perceiving them, and another period for me to begin to use them. It’s a little embarrassing to admit I was previously barely aware of this level of listening and touching, in spite of many years of making music.

Once you begin really listening hard at this level, the experience of music changes. There’s good news and bad news. It’s harder to reach a point of complete satisfaction with a performance, but at the same time the experience is richer and deeper. Anyhow, there’s no going back. Once your ears are opened, focused concentration on subtle nuances seems essential to any significant musical experience.

In revealing a level of this, Olga did a demonstration of various ways of touching C-5 for different colors of sound. One way she thinks of the touch is like dance, with the gesture of the hand choreographed to produce a particular color. Speaking of the subtle differences in sound produced by different gestures, she said (with a Russian accent), “I don’t know why it makes a difference. It just does. The piano is a mysterious instrument.”

Electronic keyboards are complicated, but somehow not mysterious. I have doubts that digital sound creation will ever be as personal and emotionally rich for me. But there is an amazing variety of things that the synthesizer can do. It’s different, and it’s good to change things up from time to time. So I’ll be experimenting, and see where it leads.

Surviving political disappointments, and a note on my piano

For those like me whose political views face in a progressive direction, this has been a tough week. It’s really difficult to comprehend how so many people can get so bamboozled. Right-wing crackpots have beat the drum loudly for lower taxes for the rich, less of a health care safety net, punishing hardworking immigrants, smaller “government,” and assorted “moral” causes. The messages don’t seem to me to have much content, reasonable basis, or persuasive power, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

I can see how going along with the right-wingers accords with the self-interest of the wealthy few. And I can also see how people who’ve lost their livelihoods and face economic hardship are desperate, angry, and susceptible to demagoguery. But there are lots of others — sincere, well-meaning folks who this week voted against both reason and rational self-interest. This is hard to figure. It seems that Churchill was right: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the known alternatives.

But we survived the Homer Simpson-like sunny nuttiness of the Reagan years and the fear-mongering ignorance, cynicism, and sheer dopiness of the Bush years. As bad as the situation looks at the moment, as painful as it is to think of the triumph of organized corruption and the huge problems that will not be addressed any time soon, most of us will likely survive for a good while. People will continue to be born, grow up, get married, have kids. People will continue to fall in love with each other, with ideas, with art, and with the beauty of the world. It’s good that this is so.

So I’ve been doing a little work on my cocoon. My most prized possession, my Steinway A grand piano, needed tuning this week. For many years I wanted a Steinway, and managed to buy mine by selling my Yamaha grand and adding money I inherited when my mother died four years ago. My mom was the first person I ever heard sing or play a piano, and she sang constantly as she did housework or ran errands throughout my childhood. Along with the words of every funny camp song or show tune she ever learned (dozens or hundreds), I got from her her love of music — a great gift. I think of her with love when I think of my piano, which is every day.

My regular piano technician for the past few years, Phil Romano, has also been working as Paul McCartney’s piano tech for his concert tours. This is cool — I like having a practical musical connection to Sir Paul — but has limited Phil’s availability. Phil was headed out of town for that gig when I called him a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t work me in, so I scheduled a tuning with Richard Ruggero. Richard has a great reputation as a piano dealer and technician, and turned out to be a very nice guy. He plays the piano himself, and quickly noted three or four keys that had minor shortcomings that he could improve. I was happy with his tuning, and agreed to get him back over to work on the nits.

It is one of life’s great pleasures to play on a freshly-tuned Steinway grand. That evening, I played some of my favorite Chopin — a couple of waltzes and the etude op. 10, no. 3. Also, some of my favorite Debussy (the first arabesque) and Liszt (Sonnetto del Petrarca No. 47). I also worked a little on two current projects, Schumann’s arabeske op. 18 and Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau. All of this music is gorgeous, and some of it so transcendent that it gives me goosebumps. I felt happy.