Essay on Poetry and this Poem This should be read after the poem below.



RHAPSODIC ODE TO THE PIANO

I

First of all is hearing, which we always forget
Tied down by bundles of notes printed black on white,.
Fingering keys black, white in some ordered systeming,
Trying to remember which are to be played loud bang or soft,
With five fingers on each hand chopping away in turn,
Teacher keeping the wrists high, or low, as the fashion prevails.
More and more to think about, therefore it is no small wonder
Hearing The Sound is a lesson soon forgot,
Not to be mentioned while the fingerwork
Goes on forever in scales, arpeggios, enough
To make you vomit or drive the neighbors deaf.

Jenny is taking Music, that's where all that noise
Comes from, Billy is learning the Horn
Together they are loud but if I turn
The TV up a bit it's not too bad.
After all: This is Culture
Which has to pain
Doer and hearer
To be any
Good.

Silence is a commodity we have precious little of today.
You may not find it in the house, apartment, street or park
So something you have to manufacture (quiet!) in your mind
Within which you can do some serious listening.
Sounds enwrap us, but most of them are unheard
Don't even register. But if you want to hear.......
Forget the sounds and hear one single sound
In all its rainbow sweep of coloring.
Which is why I say to you seriously:
First of all is hearing.
Hearing!

II

This is not a typewriter you are banging letters on.
There is a resounding thin spruce board inside which hears
A thousand nodes of vibrations which strings of steel
Are calling out to it. These are not notes or even pitches
As the teacher says, but Echoes ringing high, higher
Than you can hear, hidden harmonies which give clues
To this as piano and not a clarinet or flute. Yet you know
Because it's big and black and weighs a ton, actually
It is a piano. But can you tell me something more
About the sound? Did you really hear the sound at all?

III

My piano has a voice unto itself. A violin can urge
Sounds from a string with hairs from a horse's tail
Over a cigar box rig and make them grow and grow
Inside a single tone. It can really sing, the next thing
To a fine soprano voice, modulate and fade away
From raspy start to a wispy almost nothingness.

Beside this, the piano is another kind of beast.
From finger pressing key through a train of little parts
Made with vast cunning, a hammer made of wool
And some secret fibers, comes fast bounding up,
Hammering the string or strings from underneath.
There for a moment is your basic sound, accompanied
By shafts of overtoning echoes up an unseen scale.
A pounded sound, crash and clunk and over instantly.

But hold the finger down, the damper's up, it's ringing on
Richly with the soundboard echoing another realm,
A range of singing echoes from deep bass growl
To choirs of angels up there somewhere. Listen now!
You have to wait for the sound to evaporate
Before you have heard its desperate decay,
Its life sweeping away in lovely graciousness.

Think of the hammer on the anvil, first a crack,
A thud, then something echoing up among the stars.
So is your piano, but you have to stop to hear.

IV

My "Grand" is so rightly called. It has a great reaching arm,
Down with the drums, growling out rich and angry tones,
Then moving up it finds the cello's lowest string,
You can hear it bowing if you wait a moment patiently.
Above that the chalumeau of a clarinet, floating in auras
Around the middle range, until it goes changing its mind
And turns clarion to emulate a trumpeting of wind
Ringing in brass tubes, or a pipe of air, nothing more
Than this, touching the flautist's lips. Go higher still
And you have some tones which start as piccolo
Turning to bells ringing on without a dampening.

This is a little orchestra, you might well say, but still
It has the odd stamp of hammers hitting strings
Hard, and then measuring off the seconds of decay,
Fading to nothing or almost nothing there at all.

V

She said: Play that part loud, then softly toward the end.
So you go hit the key into the bed of felt and it is
Louder but not really interestingly loud at all.
I want a ringingly loud and vibrant tone from you,
So I will have to tell a story from long ago:

He was a German teacher of the old school, I went to him
In his Brooklyn studio or livingroom actually, where he had
Two big Steinways with the bent side toward each other
So he could sit and teach from a piano. No crouching for him
On the bench beside you, ready to strike your dangling wrist
Upward with a stroke, or snap "Wrong note! Again...!":
He had me play something, then he played it again
But with a difference. All the notes were ringing aloud,
While mine, all correct in pitch and time, were dull.
So he came around and showed me how to hang my arm
With the fingers hooked on the keys as if about to fall
Like Harold Lloyd on a skyscraper ledge edge.
Each note was a falling from one finger to next, the arm
Hanging there with it own weight, much like when you walk
You fall from foot to foot, sure and quick and lightly done. My notes came through clearer, we tried again and again
And I came home with a clear sound ringing in my ears
And a way to find that sound when needed. That was all.
He called it Weight Playing or something else in German.
But it was just a way of shooting the hammer up with speed,
The key to clean, firm sound. A lesson and a half!

VI

But then there is need for a really soft sound, an atmosphere
Floating in the air, you must reach out to hear it now.
Here by my intuition is a way of slowing the time
It takes for a finger's purposefully calm descent. Soft is not
Just what I want, but a kind of gentility, a dignity,
Care and refinement in those slow motioned sounds.
Sometimes I thought a Tai Chi of the arms, a floatingness
Which would take half a second to descend, but then I saw
Pianist playing with their arms floating aloft in the air
Like crows trying to take off in a hurry, gesturing
Grandly to the audience I suppose. Forget Tai Chi
Just measure the time descending slow and think of this:
Pressing the notes, not hitting them at all.
Softly down and slowly so
Soft the sound.

VII

Pedals! Once it was many, now it's only three,
And only one gets much attention with the foot on cue:
LOUD PEDAL. But it's not really loud at all, all it can do
Is raise the dampers on the notes, all echoing
Together, the live ones singing, awakening the dead.
There is music for this, those rich harmonic sympathies
Which Beethoven discovered breaking all the strings
On his Broadwood Grand. But if you play Bach
Feet on the floor please, there is a purity here
Which wants each note in an envelope of its own.
Mozart knew about this and kept a finger here and there
Down separately to get the sympathetic tone he heard.

Or is this right hand pedal a cheap way to get
The sound sustaining when your hands can't find
Fingering for legato? No, it is a decent way to tie
Note to note if needed, if not coarsely overdone.

The left side pedal is a simpler thing to use,
Moving the keys over to strike the strings, just one or two,
A gentler way to play when fingers are at wit's end.

But that middle pedal which is so rarely cued to use
In scores, it has it own wondrous possibilities.
Catching the chord just played down in the bass,
Where sounds last a wholesome fifteen seconds long,
It frees both hands to play their own voice-lines above
While the rich and chocolate ambiance of bass endures.
As student you may wait years to find a written cue
For sostenuto, but if you play (as I do) and improvise
For your own listening, have a try at this device
Which has largely unrecognized possibilities.

VIII

There is a problem which comes directly from hands.
RightHand is the keen and aggressive one, it operates
From a more active part of mind, and takes the lead
Fingering fast, trilling, decorating with melismata,
And ever the hand which expropriates the melody.
LeftHand is slower, sluggish, but with practicing
And effort it can be slowly taught a thing or two.
But often we give it over to fleshing out chords
To serve as an mere accompaniment to tuneful melody.

Save this for party songs for us all to sing
Or Christmas carols which we chorus eveningtime.
This way is second nature to the accordion
But poison to the piano. The remedy is now to play
One of the Bach three part inventions, and you see
A different world where voices interlock, changing
Role, position, tempo. The piano awakening
Rejoices to use its powers and true polyphony.

Or you can improvise and give each hand two roles,
Finger-pedaling a thumb while finger four and five
Experiment with sharp staccato in the upper hand,
Then add LeftHand doing more of such stuff below.
Remembering the different timbres of the keyboard range
This becomes exciting, a little polyphonic orchestra
Under your fingers. The mind can run this complex web
Of hands and sounds and fingers, doing it easily
Once you get the hang of it, while deep within the case
A thousand little wooden parts will throw a hammer up
To strike the strings which make the soundboard glow.

IX

Sound is more than you hear! You hit a key,
Bb you will say, but that's a pitch. The key's another thing,
Actually #50 to the technician and he calls it an A#,
Technicians are always sharp, that's the way they are.
But there IS a problem, A# and Bb are not the same,
Ask any soprano or violinist if you think they are.
Only the pianist makes this gross assumption, being tuned
Or rather mis-tuned to the Well Tempered scheme
Which lets us play a little wrong in every signature,
Rather than right on some and awful in the rest.
Pianists become deaf to such subtle differences.

Sound is also full of inner harmonies, a Jacob's ladder
Reaching up to where you cannot hear it's tone at all.
This makes piano sound like piano, flute like flute,
These are the magic rainbows of harmonies
Radiating upwards to give each tone its sound.
The instrument defines its echoed harmonies
Different in each octave of its entire range.

But there is more! Pianos have three strings to sound,
A lower range two, the lowest ten must meditate alone.
As soon as the strings are tuned and a week or two
Pass, while the temperature and the humidity
Change just a trifle, the perfection starts to disappear.
If you hear carefully, you can distinguish beats,
Pulses of loudness which are very soft and slow,
Quite distinct from the pitch or tone you listen for.
Beats are the piano tuner's assistant, his constant friend,
These are what he must hear which he must obey.

When at the ocean watching the rising crests of waves
You notice once in a while a higher wave gathering,
Stronger than all the rest, and when it disappears,
The others follow their normal rising curves.
This is a sea-sine-wave piled on other sine-wavelets
When it phases exactly with the others, the crest goes up
Into a master-wave, stronger, a more massive cresting surge.
This too is a beat, as much as the piano beat you hear.

X

When the tuner comes, sit quiet and listen to what he hears,
Watch those coarse pulsations slow under his hammer's turn,
At last disappearing into a placid, smooth sea calm.
There is a danger in this learning, later you will always hear
Unisons going awry, and wonder whether it's time
To call for a tuning, or let it go a bit. But better far
To hear the tuning going off, than hear nothing at all.
Pianists hear this clearly like car with an unbalanced wheel.

But there is more! Strike a major third and listen carefully.
In the mid range you should hear a rich and chocolaty sound,
Some twenty beats a second, more than you can count,
But quite enough to distinguish this from a major fifth
Which has almost nothing other than a slow beat or two.
Thirds are rich in texture, the heart and sinews that bind
Together triadic chords in harmony. Try two open fifths
Two octaves apart, what a weird and hollow sound.
Compare this with a octave, which is pure and clean
In recent tuning, but there will still be a suspicion, a hair
Of beating somewhere in those six working strings.
A minor second will have more than anything of rough,
Call it discordant if you want, I call it an acerbic cure
For over sweetness, the salt and lemon your tequila needs.

There is a present danger to all of this, if you go quick
Over the keyboard fingers flying fast, eyes riveted on score,
You forget to listen to this rainbow of rich sound.
The piano is a marvelous, complex piece of machinery,
Hundreds of delicately fashioned little parts of wood
Designed a hundred years ago to match any speed
Your fingers ask for. But yet a machine beside the violin.
So you must compensate by studying the cast of sound
With more than casual attention, and never assign
Black Box thinking to the nature of this instrument.

It is not the family car which you turn on with a key
Driving on automatic pilot. This is a well tuned, race machine!

XI

You ask me why all this obsessiveness? I can say

That if I put my hands to keyboard early mornings
Before the coffee water's come to boil, and play
Something half in my dream-world still lingering,
Dreaming in the heavy summer's misty atmosphere,
I start the day off well by ordering it in a secret way.
Or evening after supper's done, if I sit a while
Before touching a key, and then let something jell
Slowly as the notes start to come pouring forth.
Echoing the business of the day in tonal alchemy,
I conclude the daytime living in a cloak of muse.

We speak of playing the piano, but there is little play
Scanning a score, converting it to fingering the keys,
Obeying the orders for loud and soft and the pedal here,
Phrase it there with a little gap for taking breath.

Play is a commodity which has been getting rare
In this workaday world of ours. I get it here and there
Where I can, now that the sandbox is no longer right for me.
Sometimes the workshop has a pleasing purposelesness,
Or walking in the woods, but best of all for me, I believe
Is that piano I can talk to. It responds to me always
Both in its voice reverberating in the room, and also
As it speaks back to me, telling me what I mean.In those rare moments morning and eve, I find
A little more of what I've lost living in society,
The private person inside, that misplaced portion of myself.




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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris