Keys to Happiness ... Ode to Joy
A Piano Odyssey
By Perri Knize
Scribner. 371 pp. $27.50
"A soul seems to reside in the belly of this piano, and it reaches out to touch mine, igniting a spark of desire within me that quickly catches fire," writes amateur pianist Perri Knize in Grand Obsession. "This disembodied being is sultry and seductive, as if Marlene Dietrich reincarnated as the soul of this piano, and is using my hands to belt out a torch song. If only I could play this piano every day, I think, I could be the pianist I have always dreamed of becoming."
Knize's dreams were first inspired by her father, a professional clarinetist. "Some people are passionate about music," she writes. "My father was ferocious about it." She studied piano at the Mannes College of Music in New York but went on to other things -- she is currently a reporter specializing in the environment. At the age of 43, she was seized with an overwhelming need to fulfill her musical aspirations.
Searching for a new instrument along New York's Piano Row -- 58th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue -- Knize finds a German Grotrian grand, complete with the soul that she writes so glowingly about, and it sets her off on a three-year adventure of epic proportions. Refinancing her house to pay for it, she has the Grotrian, which she calls Marlene, shipped to her home in Montana, only to find that "in place of the glorious, pure, pealing clarity and sonority . . . is a hoarse, broken voice. Marlene is gone." Desperate to restore Marlene's sound to its former beauty, Knize consults piano experts and aficionados, piano lovers, piano builders, tuners, technicians. When none of the efforts is curative, she becomes as frantic and determined to find the cause as a mother whose child's illness is deemed undiagnosable. She dives into the subculture of the piano from American designers and dealers to European loggers and builders, traveling from the Bronx to Braunschweig to search for answers.
Knize's passion for her piano is intense, and if it seems excessive, she nonetheless hooks you into her obsession with writing that is lucid yet lyrical, analytical yet deeply affecting. From the opening of her "prelude," you know you're in the hands of an observant naturalist with an artist's sensibility: "Maier Christian sits on a log in the sun, his boots half-buried in slushy snow. . . . Several yards farther down that road, four loggers take their midday nap atop the trunk of a felled giant, warming themselves like a family of painted turtles."
Modesty and self-awareness add to Knize's appeal, as does her desire to be a better pianist: "I want a grander, more ambitious goal, one that better fits my fantasy of possessing an innate, neglected talent that will surge to prominence, overcome all odds and my handicap of a late start, and surprise everyone by achieving greatness." When she talks to a fellow amateur who shares her attraction to the mysteries of music, she wonders, "At midlife we're called by the inexplicable. What is it that calls to us?"
Throughout her journey, Knize introduces us to a fascinating mix of characters, including Carl Demler the piano dealer, Marc Wienert the technician, Uwe Gille the loading dock master, and Martin Walter the bellyman (the person who glues in the sounding board, the sheet of slightly curved wood that will provide amplification for the piano). Knize's description of each person is novelistic and evocative. The bellyman, for example, is "boyish: an adolescent's outsized arms, tousled, dark hair, dimples bedded in a nascent stubble, an air of rebellion. But Martin Walter also carries in his gestures a sense of purpose."
Along with its moving personal narrative, Grand Obsession offers a comprehensive lesson in piano making, piano tuning, piano delivery, piano everything, and it's all fascinating. Did you know that "the fastest-growing group of new piano students is adults over the age of twenty-five" or that "for a mere $4,595, you can record yourself playing a concerto with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra," or that in 1920 "there were many hundreds of American piano makers. Today, there are only five."
What exactly was Knize looking for? "It did seem that when I was embraced by the shimmering beauty of Marlene, I was taken to a place of inner truth," she writes, "or at least transcendence. When I was not near that, I yearned for it, for something half remembered."
The truth is that a piano's sound changes depending on many factors. "The thousands of moving parts can only sustain correct relationships with each other briefly," Knize explains. "A freshly tuned piano is a golden coach that turns back into a pumpkin with the dawn." In Grand Passion, Perri Knize has written a memoir about passion and ephemerality with lasting elegance and grace. *
Eugenia Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books, a television arts correspondent and the artistic director of the Vail Valley Music Festival.