Friday, August 15, 2014

The Piano Man, and other musical notes

The one antique at A Butler's Manor to which I can trace the entire provenance is our 1912 Chase & Baker player piano, which has been in my mother's family since the year it was built. It spent its first forty years in the Chicago area where my mother grew up, journeyed to Los Angeles when she married and dominated our family room there for the next forty years before coming to me in 1999. I worried originally that its elderly parts, perhaps desiccated by arid California climate, would crumble amidst the seasonal changes and frequent humidity of the East End. Instead, I found to my delight that the old girl obviously relished the change of scenery; her tone only grew rounder and more mellow once transplanted to the Hamptons.

As anyone who has visited A Butler's Manor knows, the upright piano with its original black walnut case anchors the two parts of our living room (once two separate rooms, a front parlor and back parlor). Guests are invited to play if they know how (please, no Chopsticks!). Once in a while someone takes us up on it and its plummy notes pour forth, the acoustics of the wood balanced by the brick-over-wood floor and the large, open space. The music will draw me from my office in the back of the house as surely as a bee to pollen (or--a timely analogy--as a wasp to orange juice).

Once, we were thrilled to be hosting a professional classical pianist who was in town to perform at a benefit. I was almost afraid to offer her my little old upright piano, but she was happy to have a piano available and practiced one of her numbers that afternoon prior to her recital. It was magical. 

Occasionally, guests take an interest in the old player and either Chris or I pull forth a piano roll (I have about 100 of them) and demonstrate. The player piano is activated by pedals that you pump, sort of like an eliptical machine. (And oy, is it a workout! Once upon a time, I could pedal that piano all night, but now? Hah. If I played a roll or two every day I'd probably be in much better shape.)

So even though I don't (yet) play myself, it is important to me that the piano remain as tuned as a 100+ year old piano can, and that task we entrust to Mike Scianetti, owner of the Piano Barn in Water Mill. In addition to being a business owner, Mike is  a professional musician, singer and songwriter.

Watching Mike tune the piano is fascinating. First, he lifts the top lid which allows him to gently pull the faceplace away, exposing the tuning pins and string (wires), dampers and hammers. You can see below the box in the middle where the player piano roll is inserted, and below it, the brass tracker duct, cut with 88 tiny diagonal holes, each representing a key on the piano keyboard. Behind the box is a pneumatic that feeds the bellows that somehow (engineering not being my strong suit) transfers the impetus caused by a roll of paper pricked with thousands of holes (that represent notes) into action which depresses the keys and produces... music. It still amazes me.


What the pictures don't show here is that he also pulls away the face frame located below the keyboard, which exposes the bellows necessary to transfer the pedal action to the spool box. My engineer father mended one of these bellows when I was an adolescent, but otherwise they, like the rest of the piano's works and case, are completely untouched and original. On a recent visit, Mike told us the bellows could use a little attention...an operation that will require flipping the piano onto its back and hence won't be done until winter, when the quiet season allows us the possibility of turning the entire front parlor into a piano operating theater.

My favorite aspect of getting the piano tuned is that Mike plays it as he works to check his machinations. He uses all or as much of the keyboard as possible, to check the veracity of both the low and high ends of the sound spectrum. To this end, he'll play a selection of pieces ranging from classical to ragtime (my request always) to popular works. His tuning sessions feel like a mini-concert. I know today's modern keyboards are phenomenal pieces of musical engineering, but to my ears, the sound of a hand-crafted wooden piano has a richness and depth incomparable to its modern counterparts. Listening to the pure, sonorous notes reignites my desire to learn to play other than with my feet.

And speaking of concerts and of classical music, we are in the midst of the annual month-long Bridgehampton Music Festival. This series is about as different from the casual Concerts in the Park series or weekly live entertainment at the Wine Stand at Wolffer Estates as one can get in the Hamptons, proving that, especially in the summer, there are opportunities for everyone's musical tastes. Most of the Bridgehampton Music Festival concerts are held at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church (wonderful acoustics!) and all events are ticketed in advance. (Act fast! Only a few dates left!) I've been to a couple of the concerts, and they are masterful.I've always found that classical music has a special ability to soothe the soul.

On that note (ha!), maybe I'll pull out one of the classical piano rolls and get a physical workout along with a mental de-stress....maybe Franz von Suppe's Light Calvary Overture...

Quote of the Day: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein