In Paris, my first piano was a Pleyel upright, regularly visited by a frighteningly blind piano tuner – we used to meet him at the metro and gently lead him to our place. For years, I couldnâ€™t wait to get home to practice scales and the three basic styles my teacher had disclosed for me: Bach, Chopin and Debussy. On one his rare visits, my father, 1963 jazz best-seller, showed me a couple of blues chords and to my familyâ€™s utter dismay, unleashed my creativity as a songwriter.
In New York, I played the Fugsâ€™ Farfisa organ for a while, but I had to leave it with a friend because I couldnâ€™t afford the freight to Paris. I gave it to Marty Rev from Suicide and anyone who knows their music can tell the Farfisa was a break-through in their sound.
Back and forth between Paris and New York, I was forced to sell my Pleyel â€“ which I much regretted later, when I found myself without a keyboard. Another friend bought me an electric piano that I kept for about a year but it was stolen. I shaved my hair completely in protest – that was about two years before punk started but it was lonely and truly shocking, even to me.
I played on borrowed instruments for a while which didnâ€™t stop me from composing a tango at the request of my friend, painter Robert Malaval who later shot himself as part of a Kamikaze art concept.
Back in New York, the Farfisa back had become part of the â€˜Suicideâ€™ sound, and I obviously couldn’t get it back. Down and out, I was a piano player at the Empire Diner which provided my food three times a week – on the up side, I could grace a pair of size 4 peach-colored jeans.
Thatâ€™s when I picked up electric guitar, a Telecaster donated by a friend, until Marty Rev made good on an electric piano and later on I was able to buy a Korg. Another burglary in my 5th floor walk-up on Ridge St in the Lower East Side led me to invest in another upright â€“ I thought it would be safe from robbers, as it took four strong men to take it up the stairs. Thatâ€™s the one I used to compose Piano Works and Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory. Local junkies used to hang out on my landing listening to the music â€“ I could see them through the peep hole – but never harmed me in any way.
While at NYU, my student loan was applied to the purchase of a good Yamaha baby grand that inspired Sonate Modale and Sonate Ordinaire, and charmed a nice young architect into proposing â€“ but the reality of looking for a place to live caused innumerable piano problems. I had to store the Yamaha because it wouldnâ€™t fit, rent various uprights including a nice Steinway that was OK, but I still wanted the Yamaha back and had it hoisted through the window of our small one-bedroom in the Village, which cause stress and financial trauma. Then we moved to Jersey City for more space, but to my great disappointment, the beloved Yamaha could not fit in the stair well and I had to switch to a smaller piano thatI didnâ€™t like as much. I then started experimenting with various alternative tunings, with the help of a British tuner who was a mean tone fanatic.
Back in Manhattan a couple of years later I was able to purchase an enormous grand that sounded just like the Steinway B I used to play at Battery Sound Studio with Arthur Russell – it was manufactured by a famous Steinway technician named Wissner. I kept this piano for 10 years, and had it tuned successively to mean-tone, just intonation, Vallotti-Young and Werckmeister III.
As the post-9/11 economic downturn forced me out of my 2nd Street loft, I had to move to a smaller place where the Wissner took most of the space and was way too loud for the room â€“ I still kept it maintained for two years, until I finally gave in and exchanged it for a weird upright, an unusual art deco German number, named Neindorf, refurbished by Russians, and equipped with a mute – so as to not disturb both listeners and myself by vicarious improvs and sketchy renditions.
I havenâ€™t actually performed on the piano since 2001 â€“ I have been using the Korgs mostly. Frank Oteri invited me to be a part of his ’schizoid’ series, according to his own words, “a series featuring two sets of radically different-sounding musical streams from the same composer.”
Here we are, tapping into the remarkably ‘unmarketable’ music with changing sounds and styles.
On April 24, at the Cornelia St CafÃ©, (8PM, admission $10) Iâ€™ll play keyboards – piano tunes from different times including the lost tango,the unreleased Sonate Modale and a new premiere, Ghost of John Cage, plus excerpts of the Variations on the Orange Cycle and some other tunes from the current Piano Soundtracks CD (4Tay). Later Jonathan Hirschman will join me for a microtonal duet (synth and electric guitar).
Can somebody tell my why I can’t help wondering at each performance whether it is going to be my last?
Note: the colorful portrait on the main page is the work of painter Karen Copham and is part number 171 of her series of 10″x10″s, to be shown later this year.