Zen And Tonics

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Christ, it’s like an establishment shot: The light raking across the impossible keyboard–eight octaves of ebony and laminate that float in the darkness of a dead-still studio. The only thing that’s really missing is a superimposed time-and-place. You sit here in front of the layers of lacquer, the hand-fitted hardwood and felted hammers, in a moment of zen silence that honors experience, confidence, passion and belief. A Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, better known to you asThe Beast, where craft has been taken well beyond even unreasonable expectations.

The nine extra keys, all weirdly black, make this the porn star of pianos. And back in the day, you’d occasionally test them to make certain the dark octave still worked. But that was as far as it ever went; nothing was played down there. This was because you knew of no music that needed these extra notes: you’d been in the business of churning-out pop, with a limited need for repertoire–though you suspected that even in classical music, such pieces were extremely rare.

But here’s the thing about that extra octave: it doesn’t actually have to be played. Just its existence down there at the end affects the other 88 keys. Piano strings resonate, they don’t need to be struck, and something played in an upper octave inevitably bounces off those nine lurking strings. When the music comes back, it’s been transformed by the trip, like a mind broadened by travel.

You know this because even though you played pop, your real love has always been jazz. And there parts of chords are often left out; only the tops of harmonic series are played–3rds and 6ths, 7ths and 9ths, 11ths and sometimes even 13ths. The tonic notes in all of these cases are provided by the listener’s imagination. But on a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, the sympathetic resonance of the extra strings fills those blanks and completes the chords.

As implied by their color, these additional notes are the equivalent of dark matter in astronomy–invisible, but changing whatever is played anywhere on the piano. An attentive audience can sense the extra octave; its proof is in every subliminal tonic. So yes, dark matter: something in the music that can only be explained by something outside of it . . .

Craft that’s been taken well beyond even unreasonable expectations–the thing on which you’re supposed to bash-out a formula that transcends itself. Which is ironic, because among the many things you lack are confidence, passion and belief. But since you know this from long experience, at least you’re assured of that: you’ve seen the block and been around it any number of times, just like the still-alive bomb defuser or, more accurately, a wily, old whore. In this Post-Steinman world, you’re not really sure if one out of four will do, but then again, with nothing else left, it’s the only thing you’ve got to work with.

You sit here in the perpetual studio twilight; finally alone, but not really: the black-lacquered Beast completely fills this corner and causes a tightness in your chest. You’re that guy in Alien, eating his breakfast and ignoring a bad case of heartburn, who seconds later is blown apart by something deep inside him. It’s been years since you’ve seen a Model 290–the past decade, after all, has been carefully designed to detour around this reunion. But all roads, it seems, have still led back here, to the dimly lit, looming Beast. Thus this struggle to stare it down, because you’d really like to look away.

You’re petrified that you can’t do this anymore–you haven’t written a pop song in 10 fucking years. And thinking back, it seems quite possible that maybe you never knew how. You had stopped writing because you couldn’t fully express yourself–pop music had always been too tonic-based. To be crowd-pleasing, the chords always had to be completed, tidy and hummable. Just as each lyric had to be ground-down to the fewest syllables and tightest rhymes. Audiences had wanted nothing left to their imaginations, and in obliging them with skillful craft, you had made a generous living. Back then you had written on another Beast, because you once held hope for all 97 keys. But really, everything could have been composed on a battered, rehearsalhall upright. Because back then the extra strings had resonated with the tonics that you dutifully provided, taking something that had been utterly obvious and making it even more so. Every blatant chord wound up with its own harmonic reinforcement, something touring had further underscored with a riser of backup singers. Doubled-tonics wrapped in doubled vocals–this had been the essence of your dalliance with Pop: in no way truth, but loudly done twice over for effect. Rhetoric, with massive amps and a truck full of custom lighting . . .