I came to music relatively late in life—I picked up my first instrument when I was in my mid-20s. I played on a series of cheap cast-off guitars, tinny boxes neglected and unloved, and I decided, because I was coming to the instrument late, I’d go right to the most difficult music and technique, and took classical lessons. An interest turned into an obsession. I practiced two, three hours a day. I upgraded teachers, shopped for sheet music, hung out in the specialty stores and played their stock, and finally broke down and spent more than I could afford on a hand-made Cervantes that had a deep, rich chocolate bass and smelled of white cedar. I never amounted to much, but I loved to play.
And then I had twins. The guitar went into a closet as much for its own protection as it was a casualty of my new schedule.
But just now I finished playing my Cervantes for the first time in months. My fingertips on my left hand are sore from pressing the strings on the fretboard and I can feel tightness in the muscles on my right wrist, which were responsible for the plucking. But I can also feel a deep shift in my body, where a familiar voice or vibration has returned, and sits comfortably deep in my bones.
The reason for the sudden renewal of interest in music is Perri Knize’s new book, Grand Obsession. And I think the Missoula author and I might agree that’s the highest compliment I could pay to her work.
“In the autumn of my forty-third year,” writes Knize, “I remembered, quite unexpectedly, that I was meant to be a pianist.” And so begins Knize’s memoir, a book that recounts her search not just for the perfect sound on a perfect piano, but for the source of music within her own self.
Knize’s desire to finally fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a pianist leads her to music lessons and into the market for an inexpensive upright piano for practicing at home. But just as her lessons lead her to increasingly sophisticated musicality—sight reading, proper technique, playing with emotion—and allows her to transform from a student plunking out notes to a vessel for music, so does her search for a piano become an obsession for the perfect sound. Knize, it turns out, being the daughter of a concert clarinetist, has a remarkable ear, and can hear tone and tuning better than some professional piano technicians. Dissatisfied with the sound upright pianos make—the less expensive, less “pure” branch of the piano family—Knize decides to look for a grand piano. Finally, after months of searching and travel to cities across the country, she finally finds the perfect one, a Grotrian, in a showroom in New York City.
Acquiring the piano is its own story. At first it’s too expensive; but eventually the dealer lowers the price to where Knize can afford to buy it, although she has to refinance her home in order to make piano payments. The Grotrian is shipped across the country to Montana, and after an agonizing wait, it arrives—only the perfect sound that Knize heard in the showroom is gone.
And thus begins the real search, Knize’s desperate undertaking to reacquire the Grotrian’s “sound.” The pursuit requires Knize to understand her piano, the delicacy of its pitch, the intricate art of tuning and voicing her instrument, and eventually even the meaning of music itself and why it affects her so powerfully. It’s during this last, and most intense search, that Knize meets the brilliant technicians who tune and voice pianos, pianists who long for perfect sound, and even those who made her piano, from tree to instrument.
What propels the book is Knize’s obsession. Her intense drive gives the memoir the feel and pace of a psychological thriller. Will she find her piano? Will she recover its sound? And, just like in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, say, it turns out that solving the mystery isn’t what provides us the satisfaction of reading, it’s what we learn along the way about the condition of human nature, the mystery of the universe, the charity and depredation that each of us is capable of. And, again, just like in a Chandler novel, the protagonist goes further than we would have (I’d have given up long before Knize or Marlowe), and, as a result, brings back something of beauty for the rest of us to admire.
For me, Grand Obsession was intimately powerful: It changed the way I look at the world. Now it’s with an ear to the music of everyday, the tones that crowds and traffic make, the vibration of silence, the sweet harmony of life’s cacophonous dissonance. But better yet, it reminded me of my own unfulfilled search for music, self, harmony. And so, as I write these words, I can hear the children stirring upstairs, and you’ll excuse me if I put aside this keyboard for the Cervantes, and introduce a new generation to this music.
Perri Knize reads from and signs copies of Grand Obsession at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 7 PM.