Category Archives: Commentary

Staying in Tune

Memo to all those young people who can’t find a job: piano tuning. People who love to play will always find a way to pay for what Matt Guggenheim, who tunes the pianos for the Portland Symphony Orchestra, calls a “necessary luxury.” “They’re like Beethoven. The bombs can be dropping 40 miles away, but what they care about is their music.”

The aspiring piano tuner, however, has to have such a burning desire to pursue his art that he is willing to apprentice long hours for little pay. He must have an attitude, like the aspiring musicians I try to discourage from a professional career, that “nothing is going to stop me.”

“I’m astounded by the fact that I don’t have kids knocking at my door, especially in today’s economy,” said Guggenheim.

“You can learn how to tune a piano (without that drive) but you’ll never make a career out of it.” He himself would not stop doing it even if he became a millionaire overnight.

Guggenheim began his own career many years ago, when his father bought a Wurlitzer piano because it had a beautiful case. “The pin block was dead and it was impossible to tune it.” Young Matt, who was blessed, or cursed, with a good ear and a love of music, couldn’t stand it and went to the garage for a Craftsman socket wrench to try his hand at a well-tempered clavier.

Recognizing his son’s continued interest, the father bought him a tuning wrench, and the rest is history.

Guggenheim’s school of hard knocks involved formal courses in such piano specialties as regulation, plus extensive apprenticeships in New York and Boston. “I was fortunate enough to find professionals who pulled me through it.”

For the first 20 years, he relied entirely on his ear. Now he also uses a Cybertuner.

“You need both an ear and technology,” he said. “You can’t just rely on a meter. The octaves and the unisons need experience to tune. You have to really hear the overtones. Our hearts and our ears will say yes when the meter says no. The warmth of the sound is very rewarding.”

He tries to tune a piano to suit its owner’s, or player’s, personal style. Jazz musicians, for example, often like a “stretched” treble. “What I love is to read a piano, know what it can be, and try to achieve that at a reasonable price. It’s exciting to watch one come alive.”

From 1900 to the advent of TV, millions of pianos were built, to the point that an estimated one in three homes had one. Now there are well-made pianos virtually everywhere. Guggenheim is continually surprised at the instruments some extremely good musicians put up with when there are alternatives out there. When you find one you like –for tone, action, sound quality and so on– the most important technical question is its tuning stability, he said.

One of the most rewarding things about his work is “I get to see the families that care. There are a lot of people who still love to play, and want their kids to enjoy it too. People’s lives are too busy, and it’s easy to get lost in technology.”

In his shop, where he repairs and rebuilds pianos, Guggenheim has a sign that reads: “Pianos Are Complicated.” Whole books have been written on subjects such as equal temperament, and a piano action is a miracle of mechanical engineering. “It’s fascinating, you think you’ve got it and you don’t. Then you wake up at 2:00 in the morning thinking I have to try this and go out in the shop before the idea goes away.”

“I don’t think tuning will ever die, as long as there are pianos in the world. There’s always work in the toughest of times. I truly believe this.”

A Little Water Music

Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface,” was the featured work at the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert on Oct. 7, 2008, the first conducted by its then new music director, Robert Moody.
Bates’ work, basically a symphony in four movements, depicts increasingly warm states of water, from calving glaciers through hurricane surges to the warm lapping waves of Berlin’s Wannsee. It was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, which premiered it on Feb. 7, 2008. It also references New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, in Dixieland intimations from the movement “Crescent City.” This month marks the 10th anniversary of Katrina, one of the worst natural (and man-made) disasters in U.S. history.
In remarks about the new work, the composer mentions that “water has influenced countless musical endeavors. ‘La Mer’ and ‘Seigfried’s Rhine Journey’ come quickly to mind.”
That was a challenge. How many other well-known compositions have to do with water? I would never have thought of “Seigfried” immediately, but the Rhine Maidens did come to mind, and “Die Lorelei.” There’s Handel’s “Water Music,” Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela,” and Edward MacDowell’s “Ocean” Sonata, the storm at sea that ends Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude and “Ocean Waves” Etude, a song from Berlioz’ “Nuites d’ete,” Satie’s musical description of sea-sickness, Noel Coward’s “Matalo,” and the list goes on. A new parlor game?
Someday, I hope a composer (if it hasn’t been done already) will devise a musical setting for Rimbaud’s lovely liquid, languorous line: l’Eternité, C’est la mer mêlée au Soleil.”
What is just as intriguing is how water itself can make music, like raindrops falling on a metal pipe. Bates’ huge orchestra for “Liquid Interface” includes a glass harmonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that standardizes the tones made by rubbing the rims of crystal glasses containing various amounts of water.
One of the oldest musical instruments is the Hydraulus, a water-powered organ that was played by the Egyptians as early as 200 BC, if not before. The weight of water pressing on a bellows compressed the air that sounded the pipes. The sound was said to be so loud that musicians had to wear earplugs (sound familiar?) and it was later played at Roman gladiatorial contests and by the Emperor Nero. Some scholars believe that was one of the reasons for the prejudice of the early church against musical instruments of all kinds.
My favorite among water powered instruments is the sea organ on the shore of the Adriatic at Zadar, Croatia. We definitely need one in Maine. It consists of a series of wide and shallow stone steps leading down to the water. Organ pipes under the steps are sounded by air pressure that depends upon wave height. The tones would be random, except that the pipes are tuned to a diatonic scale consistent with Croatian ethnic music. The sound is always pleasing, like that of a xylophone tuned to a pentatonic scale.
“Liquid Interface” combines a modern landscape of taped sounds with relatively tonal orchestral writing.
An analogy is Rautovaara’s “Cantus Arcticus,” with its taped birdsongs. Rautovaara’s is the best music, and the most accessible, but both are worth hearing