Improvisations: Everything I Know About Pianos
It doesn’t matter how you cross an ocean, by boat or by air. It will take things from you—some of them for good. My father is eighty. When he plays, body erect, foot rocking into the sustain pedal, his body sways at the hips. It makes me wonder how this man has chased away—teeth gnashing, spitting at their feet—every one of his beloved friends. No matter what, he could not let go of music. How he could come down to the basement to whack our legs near bloody with plastic Matchbox tracks, then head upstairs to play Clementi’s Sonata in C.
The piano is one of the few instruments that belongs to two families. The strings must be struck. It’s cousin to both violin and the drum.
It is 1942. The Japanese-appointed mayor of Vigan is known to horsewhip boys in the main plaza. Minor offenses usually. The boys are sometimes around the same age as my father—who turned thirteen just months before the occupation.
It was around that time that my grandfather, Lolo Alfonso, bartered two huge jugs of good molasses so that my father could study the violin with the most famous musician of the town. A couple massive, sweet jugs—commodity better than hard currency—given up for a boy to learn to play music in the middle of a war.
And despite my grandfather’s sacrifice, it wasn’t so much the violin, but the piano my father would come to love.
I can’t remember when our family’s piano arrived at our house. It’s as if it just appeared over night. I don’t remember a truck rumbling onto our street or grunting men who hauled it up the short flight into the living room.
It just showed up—the way hundreds of eleventh degree relatives over the years seemed to show up, one by one, at our front door. And my brothers and I, as children, were expected to sit beside them, speak with them kindly, tell them what grade we were in and what the names were of our favorite teachers. And then we would kiss the old auntie or uncle on the cheek or put our reverent foreheads to their knuckles, then wave goodbye, and they’d be gone.
But this one—this guest never went back to where it came from. It stayed there in a corner by the big front window overlooking Mr. Wicksye’s house and beyond that, Cherry Street and I-95 and the state of Pennsylvania and probably Missouri, then beyond that, forever west where there was an ocean eventually that my parents each crossed on their own, coming to America, never intending to make a home of this country, but my father broke his priestly vows and my mother was happy to help him do it and my brother was born in 1964 and I was born the year of Woodstock and the first men on the moon.
A piano has 88 keys, which trigger exactly as many hammers.
They strike, in all, two hundred-some strings.
On average, the total force to keep all the strings taut is twenty tons.
As boys, my brothers and I figured out how to press simple triads in our right hand, doubling the root in octaves with our left, crude inventions to get us through a couple verses and a hook. My younger brother, Mark, picked up the clarinet eventually. My older brother, Anthony, the guitar.
I, on the other hand, was obsessed with the piano, for a few years and beyond.
As a teen, I used to cover our Baldwin with a bedsheet then slide my hands underneath the fabric. Practicing chains of II-V-I progressions, moving up in fourths, down in fifths, each tonic turned unstable, every resolution temporary, in root position and first and second inversions, I tried to find the harmonies blind.
From jazz, I learned what it meant to be rootless, a perfect fifth above the seventh dropped a half-step, diminished. A tritone: also known as the devil’s interval, banned during the Middle Ages. It was considered evil, a dissonance used quite often in the music of peoples to the East, where there were usually many more than a mere dozen notes to a scale.
The tritone is the nasty note, the one that will turn a tune’s diatonic runs blue. It’s a table with one leg too short. It is the chipped tooth, the rusted key, the spot of delicious grime on your best white sheets. It’s your left armpit after you’ve danced four hours in hard soles and your slick Sunday wools.
It’s why Sly’s so funky. It is the sad door through which Robert Johnson laughs.
Of course, you can’t just dial a devil to show up at a party. Every demon worth his brimstone loves to arrive among a congregation of angels.
When we get to the blacktop, we are still sweating. But we can’t resist. Junji and I punch a four-hand martillo in A-minor, shaking our asses to the sloppy clave echoing through Vailsburg. God-awful. Scuffed, scraped up, and always out of tune. A dozen keys cracked and yellow, at least that many duds. The piano belongs to Papa, who is 90, grandfather of my best friends—brothers really—Phil and Junji.
I am helping their family move everything they own out of Newark to a new house in the Jersey suburbs. It is summer and the three of us have budged the old piano down the seven steps of the brick porch and across the sidewalk all the way out to the street behind the truck. The sky is bigger than the whole county of Essex. Hot. We don’t give a damn who can hear us banging away like a box of broken chimes. Papa is watching, laughing.
They say Art Tatum sought out the most rundown and broken instruments to see what sound he could make jump from their bodies. I don’t think he knows who Tatum is, but when Papa plays his piano, the way his left hand leaps two octaves reminds me of the sweetest stride, his right hand a small flock running.
From this particular crippled behemoth, Papa pulls out the kind of music you can dance to. He can still peck a swoon out of this wheezing wreck’s keys.
He is leaning against the window. I can see, from here, all ten birds of his hands.
Years before the Japanese were to arrive and appoint a madman with a horsewhip as mayor of the capital, Lolo Alfonso bought a piano for his family. It was the first ever such instrument to be owned in San Vicente, a sand-hued model made in Germany by a company called Lyric. It was 1930 or thereabouts.
He purchased the piano primarily for his beloved Susana, the oldest daughter, who, by all accounts, was a rare talent of a musician and who died somewhat suddenly at the age of fifteen from consumption. She wouldn’t live to see 1941.
Alfonso was tall, austere. He was a public figure, a community leader and local judge, the kind of man for whom locals would step aside and tip their hats as he passed. And when Alfonso lost his oldest daughter, he wept for days in grief. My father never saw him cry again.
My grandmother, Lola Matilde, would give birth to ten more children. And my father used to stand beside their old Lyric while his older sister Natividad took lessons. He watched how she placed her hands on the keys. Then, when the lesson ended and his big family was elsewhere or distracted, he’d sit at the piano to test the fingerings he carefully memorized.
In the Philippines, they call that style weedo, which sounds, in English, like widow, but is really from the Spanish word oido—or heard. To say you play weedo is to say you are adept at making music up as you go along, an expert at learning by ear and knowing by heart.
There is a website that lists pianos free for the taking. They are in various conditions from ruin to excellence. There are links to pianos up for adoption in all fifty U.S. States, Washington, D.C., Canada and the U.K. Greyhounds and pit bulls are not the only beasts in need of a good home.
Right now, in New York City alone, there is a Story and Clark Spinnet… from the 1950’s or 1960’s and a Jacob’s Brother Piano…Has wheels…a Sohmer… a Kramer grand… a vintage Euclid… hard to part with, easy to get out the door… Wurlitzer… Winter… Martha Washington…
Free pianos (according to this site) are waiting for a home in every borough, Staten Island the lone exception. But all the city’s unclaimed pianos will eventually arrive there anyway, at the landfill where the city trucks its garbage. Its official name is Fresh Kills.
I live in Brooklyn now—our place too small for a piano—New York, where every inch is a kind of fortune. In the West Village, an 1800-square-foot, shabby, pre-war fixer-upper could run you, for those who can afford it, $1.4 million. According to my math, that’s about $780 per square foot. An average upright piano takes up about ten square feet of floor space. Before taxes, interest, fees, before you’ve paid for the space the piano bench your ass will sit upon to screw up rock and Rachmaninoff, you’ve dropped, even for a free hand-me-down or take-me-away, almost $8000 and your instrument hasn’t even been dragged to the landing of your walk-up.
I wanted to study in conservatory, but my father refused. He wanted me to become a lawyer and make good American money. So I gave up music and became a poet.
My father is about to move to Las Vegas. Our old house will soon be a done deal. The piano already is. The movers—two skinny guys speaking Russian—popped it onto a hydraulic lift (which made no noise but hissed) and were quickly gone.
This is the house I’ve known since high school, the house I have gone back to and abandoned for twenty-five years. Because of this house, I have never been homeless, even when I was without a job, mired in money troubles, skipping Rahway for a rented room in Buenos Aires, a shared couch in Jersey City for a basement in Austin. I was never completely nowhere. There was always this house and its piano.
Plastic bins are stacked now where the beat up, brown Baldwin used to be. I keep thinking how a few of the piano bench’s staples had already given way, so the flimsy hold-space sagged with the weight of songbooks and sheet music stuffed into it, Stevie Wonder and Hanon peeking out the same corner. My dad and I, as always, are barely speaking to one another, but when we do, our voices echo in the living room as if they’re being slapped around in an empty can.
A piano changes the sound in a room even when it does nothing, even as two enemies, saying little, stand around the space the piano has made, even when it’s no longer there.
My brothers and I are all at my parents’ house together again. First time in years. The piano is a bit dusty, but there, in the corner of the living room. My brother’s girlfriend, Laura, without telling anyone, has crept out the house. It’s May 28, 1995, the first day of my mother’s wake.
My mother never, not once, sat at the piano. Never played. Never came near it. The last memory I have of her is in her hospital room. She had been on dialysis for a decade and a half before she finally got an organ match. She’d been on immuno-suppressants to help her body accept the new kidney but caught a nasty blood infection. As it goes, the sepsis won. Death from a foreign body.
But a couple weeks before she died, she woke up out of her near-coma and with family and friends crowding the room. She cracked jokes, bragged about her comeback. I wasn’t there, but I would be in the room when my father held her hand and whispered into her ear to pray now for God’s forgiveness, blessing her with a sign of the cross in the air as if he had never left the priesthood.
I like to think, with all the boys out of the house, my mother would walk to the piano and press a couple notes out of it, who knows, maybe composed in our absence whole concertos of joyful nonsense.
There’s a story my father once told me. His grandfather was convinced by his wife to sell a few hectares of land they owned in the neighboring province for cash.
So my great grandfather packed a bag and had the cochero take him on the rugged journey to their other property, where he would stay as long as it took him to open and close a deal.
A few long days passed. And the man who was my great grandfather came back down the road that led to the front door of our family house, the woman who was my great grandmother standing outside, as if she had been waiting for him the whole time. Rather than riding the horse-drawn coach, my great grandfather was walking by himself far ahead of it.
When he approached the yard where his wife, my great grandmother stood, eyeing him, she asked how much money he earned from the sale.
“None,” he answered.
And just then, behind my great grandfather, the family horse came up the road, pulling their cart, which was not empty, but filled with violins, tambourines, guitars. My father says, his grandfather purchased them with the funds from the land, and those instruments would be used to open the town’s first music school. My great grandmother, who my father says was made of fire, was forever furious and never forgave her husband for the deed.
My cousin James has arrived at our house early, long before the rest of the mourners.
Some months before, he inherited a baby grand piano, one of those beat-up freebies someone had no use for. Soundboard was solid, but it was missing a handful of keys. It needed new felt for the hammers, and a serious tuning. His hourly wage wasn’t going to fix it, so he heaved it one afternoon to his driveway somehow by himself, and, taking sips out of a six-pack between rounds, smashed it to pieces with a sledgehammer.
It will lay there in heap on his driveway, until the week of my mother’s death, he returns to our house with his flatbed full of chunks from that piano and a fifth of cheap whiskey. Every night we toss an armful of the scrapped wood into a metal lid torn off an old grill and burn the piano little by little, toxic shellac and all.
I love to watch children enter a room with a piano in it. Often, the child will wander off to it, like she’s following a sound the grown-ups can’t yet hear. Some kids approach it boldly, eager to mimic a cartoon or TV scene. Sometimes they bang away at it and sometimes they test just a few keys, naturally sounding out eighth notes as if no one was born without the need to turn what rhythm we have inside ourselves into something you can hear. I’m saying, our blood’s got it.
People stream into our living room, some of them carrying desserts or whole chafing dishes still hot. Some carry cards of condolence in which they’ve signed just their names and the date. The women touch our cheeks. The men use both hands to hold our elbows as they pass us in the foyer.
My Uncle Anton has now arrived. He has aged, his face darkened by a full head of hair shocked in silver. As a young man he played first chair violin for the national youth orchestra back home, until Lolo Alfonso told him to put the fiddle down, give it up, make dough. So now Uncle Anton sells big machines in Louisiana. He’s a fast talker, loose, loves a dirty joke so much he’ll tell it to you twice. Every other word from his mouth, my father, the old theologian, scoffs at or turns his head and sniffs.
And I think I understand disdain like that. The kinds of fistfights my brothers and I broke out in the cellar or a dirty elbow delivered deep in the key on a rebound. Resentment’s a man’s own reward and wrongs stay fresh though men grow old.
An hour later, Laura has come back, flushed, breathing hard.
She is holding a charcoal gray case in each fist. She hands one to my uncle, the other to my dad. The rental tags from Lou Rose dangling from the handles.
These miserable grouches pop open the cases. They hold the violins at arm’s length to the light, as if they are about to drink from them.
My dad tucks the body, gently, between his shoulder and chin. My uncle does the same. My brother is already holding his guitar. I slide onto the bench in front of the piano, and my uncle calls out four-four. He counts us in, between downbeats, and those two old rivals draw their bows’ first strokes across the strings, stoking an up-tempo one-four-five. You can’t tell my father and his brother survived a bloody war that their older brothers did not. And as long as they live, their bitterness survives as well. You can’t tell the song in the air is just an invention. There isn’t a sheet of music in front of us. My uncle is calling out the chords, all of us keeping time, following the changes.
A piano, by virtue of its size and weight, insists you have to come to it. Its size is formidable and its silence exponentially so. It always stands for what everything else in the room cannot say.
Some hammers, on the lowest and highest registers, are designed to strike only one string. In the middle registers, the hammers strike as many as three strings at a time.
A group of strings struck to play a single note is known as a chorus.
The note sounded by each string of each chorus is itself made of many sounds known as harmonics or partials. They are the fundamental and the overtones, the individual vibrations, that, when combined with one another, give a piano its unique texture, setting the sound of one instrument apart from another. To hear just one note is to hear many voices at once. Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Andre Watts—they summon multitudes.
There is a town that neighbors San Vicente, the birth town of my father, known as Bantay, whose name means, simply, Mountain, for you can see the neighboring provinces from the towns highest points, one of which is the site of a tower whose bricks are mortared with egg whites and which has withstood several wars, a few hundred typhoons, not to mention the several instances of destructive shimmy the town’s fault lines have made beneath it, a tower in whose belfry they have hung heroes by the neck until dead.
And in this town of Bantay, there once lived a man named Lucio, whose name is hard for the living to remember, except for the fact that his last name was Piano.
His wife’s name seems to be forgotten.
We do know that Lucio had children whose names were Calixto, Dionisio, Valentino, Consuelo, and Esteban.
And Calixto married a woman named Elpidia Paz (whose first name sounds like one who begs and whose last name certainly means peace) and they named their children Miguel, Esperanza, Godofredo, Felipe, Teresita, Antoninia, Gabriel, Bernadita, Julita.
And Esperanza, whose name is waiting and patience, who is the oldest daughter of Calixto and Elpidia, would be followed to America by the oldest son, Miguel, who would change his name in this new country to Mike.
And Mike would marry Lourdes of Vigan, the capital of my father’s province and the province of Lucio, and the children of Lourdes and Mike are grown now, and it’s no surprise they are the kind of women who can hold twenty tons of laughter and sadness in their mouths at the same time. Their names are Marilou, Michelle, and Melissa, all of them Pianos, the youngest of whom, Melissa, I’ve asked to be my wife.
Every time I walk past a room where there’s a piano in a strange house, I’m waiting for a moment to break away from my host. I like to sneak back, sit down, and try the instrument out.
If I were to count in feet the length of every room I’ve crossed with the total silence of one piano packed inside my chest, I may as well have crossed oceans. A fancy grand or dinged up console, it doesn’t matter. I can end up sitting at an unfamiliar piano trying to coax some small music from it for hours. If I’m called away from the instrument, I’m always compelled to return, as if I’ve abandoned a conversation with someone who knows all the secrets of my father’s life and the lives of all the fathers that begat him, me.
Maybe it’s not the company of a piano that summons me, but the solitude, not the song, but the silence. I feel like I’m called by the pianos I’ve touched then abandoned. I keep going back to them, as if I’ve left half my body behind.