Patrick Rosal on Improvisations
Rosal recounts all he knows about pianos @ Drunken Boat. The essay has been nominated by Drunken Boat for a 2011 Pushcart Prize.
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.
Image "Abstract Piano" by Trisha Lamoreaux