by Weston Cutter
As is (probably) the case for a few other people, classical music and chess are two things I respect and admire and largely suck at. I can’t play any classical instrument, I’d lose just about any game of chess I’d sit down to play, but some part of me wants to be better and know more about both. I check Shostakovitch CDs out from the library, I’ve heard of a few dozen chess openings (remembering the name of none of them, knowing nothing of the details of how they’re actually played), but I’m woefully stupid about each (and we can just skip over whatever commentary all this bears on whatever need I have to feel part of or conversant in matters that are pretty recognizably culturally snobbish, elite, etc). And so, of course, I read about them.
I’ve probably read a dozen books on chess and classical music, but I’ve seen nothing before like Katie Hafner’s A Romance on Three Legs, the story of Glenn Gould, Verne Edquist, and a Steinway concert grand given the designation CD 318. These three characters—piano, pianist, and piano tuner—are not the three legs of the title, but they work well as stand-ins for the actual, wooden piano legs Gould was talking about when he said the line (the book’s title is his line).
Gould the pianist and person probably need very little here, from me, in terms of background: he was a genius, obsessive/crazy about his health, Canadian, etc. What a reader could presumably guess from the available evidence re: Gould is that, yes, he was as nuts about his instrument as he was about his body, and by nuts I mean here, well, demanding. So just for a second, now, guess the number of moving pieces in a piano. Guess the number of ways a piano can be in one way or another manipulated for various accents and changes. True or false: each key on a piano, when depressed, causes three strings to be struck simultaneously, producing one note (true). Not even getting into whether his neuroses were piqued and fed by the dizzying array of things to get fussy about re: a piano, it’s hard to imagine an instrument more delicate and fickle. (I don’t know the number of moving parts of a piano—it’s in the high hundreds, maybe more—and the number of ways a piano can be manipulated for different tones is probably only expressible exponentially, something to the power of something else).
So, then, Gould+piano is a perfect storm as is, right? Enter Edquist, a nearly-blind piano tuner. Cool but sort of unsurprising fact: piano tuners with poor eyesight is not just a schlocky Hallmark-esque theme/idea of redemption through various senses, but is (was, anyway) common. Edquist was not alone in being shitty of eye and great of ear. If you play an instrument, especially one with strings, you know maybe a little of the difficulty in keeping the thing tuned. Edquist was some sort of piano whisperer, could get into a piano’s guts and therein tweak things until, according to Hafner, an absurd level of tonal purity was reached. It sounds dry and dull to say it like that, but it’s actually pretty riveting in the book.
So: pianist, piano tuner. Not even worth guessing about: Glenn Gould’s fickleness about the details of his instrument, of course, started with his choice of the instrument itself. Through tons of trial and error, Gould ended up falling for the CD 318, a Steinway grand that’d been made slowly during World War Two (slowly because the factory’d been turned over to making war supplies). The big thing that made the CD 318 Gould’s piano was its incredibly responsive action, which terms describes how easily the keys must be pressed to produce tone. Gould wanted the lightest possible action, and with the CD 318, and Edquist’s help, he got it.
There’s more to the book than just that, but that’s the guts of the story: Gould’s fussiness, Edquist’s incredible patience with the pianist and concern for the instrument, and the instrument itself. The book is filled out with details of the work involved in making a Steinway grand (which process has recently been made into a movie called Note by Note), the relationship between the Steinway company and the artists who played its pianos, both Edquist’s and Gould’s backgrounds, and the really, really sad story of CD 318’s life (I’m not joking: you get involved, and when bad shit happens to the piano (which it does, bad shit does happen), you feel almost sick, like to-your-stomach sick). Hafner’s writing throughout is lively and quick, and if there’s a lack of overt voice in her writing, you can tell that it’s because she’s (wisely, I think) holding back for the sake of the story itself to take center stage.