The first chord of “Kluane Lake” is a drop cap. It’s the start of the piece, but it’s also an announcement that the piece is starting, so listen, and a promise that where it goes next will be a place worth going.
This chord has no time. It just rings. Time doesn’t start until the rest of the phrase, having listened, now takes its own traveling steps. It’s also a chord I love, but which, until Monday night, I had never played on a good piano.
I’ve been threatening to play at an open mic night since separation, when I got the upright piano with the broken leg. I bought the sheet music for the Gymnopedies and learned my favorite one—which I’d always imagined being able to play—by penciling in the note names, and relearned “On the Rebound,” a Floyd Cramer piece that I learned the first time when I took piano lessons as a kid. I practiced when the boys went to bed. I hope they remember it when they hear the Gymnopedie in a movie or something after I’m gone.
I also started writing songs at the piano. I thought I’d have a set of three post-divorce songs soon enough, and I’d go play them at an open mic night somewhere.
I no longer remember the details of the first one I finished. I think it was good, but I’ll have to refer to a recording to remind myself.
The second one I finished was much better. I think it works. It’s the first song I played and sang Monday night, slightly flummoxed by the microphone boom arm between me and the keyboard, the way I couldn’t tell how loud my voice was in the speakers, and the way the orientation of the piano put most of the audience behind me.
The third one I finished writing wasn’t a new song; it was “Kluane Lake,” a piano piece I’d started when I was much younger and never found a way to finish. One day in my three-boy home in my new life, my hand went to a chord that was down a whole step instead of up, and that unlocked its completion. I still have things I want to improve in the B section, but good enough: That and the second song could be a two-song open mic set.
I’d looked, on and off since landing in Connecticut, for open mic nights 1) with pianos 2) that weren’t at bars 3) and didn’t feature session musicians jamming. I didn’t find any for a long time. Now, with two new pieces burning a hole in my pocket, wanting to be spent, I searched again and found one. 40 miles away, Monday nights. I’d already visited half a dozen open mics a year or two earlier; now I drove out to this one, just to scope it out, not to play.
I didn’t hear the piano that night—no one had signed up to play it—but it was the place. Coffeehouse vibe, even though it was a performance space, and I was told they kept the piano tuned. A few weeks later, I psyched myself up and then chickened out. Monday night, I went back and signed up.
All I really wanted to tell you, though, was what it was like to play this one declarative, declamatory chord. What came out of this Steinway baby grand was a sound my beaten Krakauer upright with the broken leg could only point at. It was truer to the music in my head than even my head could be. The clarity and flat-out power of the chord . . . I don’t have words. It contained more of the divine than I’ve ever heard in it, and I’ve heard it maybe a thousand times.
My old Krakauer with the broken leg makes digital pianos—even the ones with expensive samples and the latest algorithms—sound like toys. This Steinway baby grand did not make my Krakauer sound like a toy; it sounded like what the Krakauer meant but could never fully express. It sounded like how a lake in the Yukon should sound when put to music.
My playing . . . was all right. My nerves in the strangeness of that performance space will improve, and more of the music will be unhindered by them. The B section will improve, too, in small compositional decisions that, when enough accumulate, will nudge it in the right direction on the pedestrian-to-sublime spectrum.
Next time, though, I’ll just do “On the Rebound.” It’s upbeat, there’s no singing, and I can do audience hand claps. I want to see if they’ll let me turn the piano around, though. It’s hard to connect with an audience when you’re facing the back wall.