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  • Resonance
  • Carol A. Ellingson (bio)

Piano Notes

I sat down at the piano, the first time in our new home, its consecration. I opened Das Wohltemperirte Clavier. Bach should bless every endeavor, I thought; he's so clear-headed, such a firm foundation. I ran my thumb along the spine, firm enough to crease it open, no more, and began Prelude 1, the easy one in C-major, arpeggiated chords rolling up sedately from the bass, twice per measure. I reached the last 12 measures, the low G droning in the bass, measure after measure, the tension building magnificently. This is my favorite part. I love the resolution, the prickly buzz just before it settles back into the home key. Usually I play that section over and over, but I stopped.

"Dick," I called to my husband. I didn't wait for an answer, "The piano's got more notes."

"Um-hmm," he called back from the kitchen.

"No, I mean it. Listen!" I played the resolution again. Then, again. "Can't you hear it?"

"Nice," he said.

I got up and walked to the kitchen. "Dick," I said firmly, "I hear notes I've never heard before. I'm not kidding."

"Sounds great to me," he said. I could tell he couldn't hear it. For the fine distinctions, we don't rely on my eyes and we don't rely on his ears.

"I'm hearing more, as if the bass notes weren't even there before. I don't understand it. Come listen."

He said he could listen in the kitchen. He was fixing something. Using tools. I walked back to the living room and tried out every piece I could find with big bass. I didn't understand what I was hearing. [End Page 73]

The Fundamental

In acoustics, the fundamental is the lowest note in a harmonic sequence. It corresponds to the pitch, the name of the note.

When I was seven, my mother and father came home one night and said we were getting a piano. They had gone somewhere and bought one from somebody and it would be arriving sometime soon. That was my child's sense of the thing anyway—things happened, having a timeless and indistinct quality, their import and weight hidden. Somewhere, somebody, sometime, soon—something happened.

It was mysterious, my parents having disappeared on a secret mission and returned with an announcement we only partly understood. Can real people have a piano? we wondered. In a house? We must have seen the piano at Grandma's, my mother's mother. It sat there, a little spinet, polished, a piece of furniture in the dining room. Someone would put a tray on it or sit on the bench. No one played it. I doubt if my brothers and I knew it made music. Probably each of us had lifted the cover once or twice, peeked beneath, pushed on a key, but too timidly to produce a sound. Certainly we did not connect the furniture in Grandma's dining room with music we heard on the radio or records on the phonograph.

My mother was excited, it was clear. "We're getting a piano," she almost hummed. We asked, what do you do with it? "Lessons," she said. The boys promptly lost interest, but I was intrigued. I sensed she meant it for me.

In due course it arrived, a dark upright with a sturdy bench. It seemed as tall as my mother. The bench was so high my brothers had to climb it, bending chest to the seat, wrapping their arms along each side, and pulling, like a worm inching along. The piano came from a bar—located in Library, Pennsylvania, I recall. A bar piano, I can hear my mother whisper, shocked, surprised at herself, bringing a bar piano home for her children. Although a practical, hard-headed woman, she had her sheltered moments.

Whether my memory plays tricks on me or not, I recall the piano smelled when it arrived, sweet and yeasty, an odor I couldn't place—stale beer I now assume. The piano was tantalizing, an enigma, off limits at first—until the piano tuner...


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pp. 73-80
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