Sunday, May 24, 2009

The 21 Pianos of Neko Case

Singer Neko Case was featured on WFUV recently. It was the first time I had heard her music (which by the way, I really like). In the course of the interview she mentioned that one of the pieces on her new album, Middle Cyclone, was accompanied by 21 pianos!

Where do you find a recording studio with 21 pianos? In this case, it was Neko Case’s Vermont farmhouse. Yes, she has 21 pianos there.

She explained that she noticed, on Craigslist, many people giving away pianos. Most of them are given away for the price of “Just-get-the-thing-out-of-here!” So she kept acquiring pianos, and taking them to the farmhouse, and there they are. She actually owns more, but 21 are tunable.

The sound of 21 pianos is lovely. Lush, magical. Since we’re accustomed to musicians accompanying themselves on multiple tracks, the sound isn’t unexpected. But there’s something in knowing that 21 pianos were played simultaneously — and recorded! — that’s quite wonderful.

It started me thinking about free pianos, though. When I was mismarried to Peter I, we settled into an apartment just downhill from where my Grandma McLaughlin was closing down her house. She had a piano. I was used to having a piano. It was an easy choice, for her and for me. Lubricated by a couple six-packs of Rolling Rock, Peter, his brother Nick, and some other friends got the piano downhill and then up the steps into our apartment.

Grandma dropped by once to visit her piano! Since we had a harpsichord in the living room (Peter had built it), Grandma’s piano was in my office, but that was okay. She knew it had a good home.

Then I left — Youngstown and the marriage — for San Francisco, to join the revolution. The piano certainly wasn’t going to go into my suitcase or my parents’ basement. No family members stepped up to take it. A friend from church, whose husband was an architect in Peter’s firm, said she had always wanted a piano. So off went the piano to the west side.

My dad mentioned a few years later that he had visited Grandma’s piano in its west side home. By then, of course, it was Mary’s piano. Grandma did mention once that she was unhappy that I had disposed of her piano so cavalierly.

When I was older I came to understand just what her piano meant to Grandma. Owning a piano, and seeing that your children took lessons, was to know you had arrived somewhere important. More than that! Grandma’s piano had participated in singalongs and parties. It had been played during wakes. Certainly children and grandchildren had banged on it, but she could also steal time playing it, and take herself someplace very special to herself, and private. Many happy memories had accumulated around that piano. When she passed the piano to me, she was passing custodianship of a precious part of her past.

So when I heard of Neko Case’s 21 pianos, I thought of Grandma’s piano and multiplied its story 21 times. That’s 21 families missing part of their heritage! What a sad reflection on family lore, and the ownership of stuff, and the passing down of value(s).

1 comment:

LSS riverrun said...

The bittersweet sadness/pleasure of coming to own things that maybe should be treasures in the hands of family members is all part f the work at riverrun. Chris is particularly pained, yet compelled, to buy photo albums. We have family pictures. Other peoples' families. We love having them, but still...
In many ways riverrun, like Neko's barn, is stuffed with second-cousins to your grandma's piano