For the first time since my first son was born, I am living in a house without a piano. What I have now is a Yamaha “electronic piano,” a decades-old leftover from my pre-piano, pre-children days. The Yamaha is a hefty plank of plastic with “weighted” keys that make a sad thunky plastic sound when you play them. Unlike the vegan cashew queso my wife made for dinner the other night, it is a poor substitute for the real thing.
But The Yamaha, for now, is what I have, so I am making the best of it. The Yamaha has ten different voices: 2 pianos, 2 electric pianos, 2 organs, strings, 2 harpsichords, and a vibraphone. I hate the two pianos and never play them. The organs make the room sound like church. The other voices I can work with. As with many things in life, I like it more the less it tries to pretend to be something it’s not.
Can you have a moment of transcendence on such a sub-par instrument? I got close the other night. I was practicing some Bach, and I felt something like, I am putting my fingers on the same keys as Bach. He wrote these notes down 250 years ago, and now I am playing them. I may be doing a clumsy job, but I am making him come alive again.
I thought of Margaret Atwood’s “frozen music”:
Books are frozen voices, in the same way that musical scores are frozen music. The score is a way of transmitting the music to someone who can play it, releasing it into the air where it can once more be heard. And the black alphabet marks on the page represent words that were once spoken, if only in the writer’s head. They lie there inert until a reader comes along and transforms the letters into living sounds. The reader is the musician of the book: each reader may read the same text, just as each violinist plays the same piece, but each interpretation is different.
And I thought of my friend Alan Jacobs, who is writing a book called Breaking Bread With The Dead. The title comes from a lecture by W.H. Auden, who said:
…one of the greatest blessings conferred on our lives by the Arts is that they are our chief means of breaking bread with the dead, and I think that, without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.
I suppose you break bread with the dead using whatever tools you have on hand. Sometimes it’s a fine, dusty hardback, and sometimes it’s a free ebook on your Kindle. Sometimes it’s an old wooden piano, and sometimes it’s The Yamaha.