On page 1420 of the old Second Edition Webster’s Unabridged my father bought over 20 years ago for my brothers and me, it states that in music, a prelude is an introductory section or movement of a suite or fugue, and that since the 19th century it has become any short romantic composition.
I was not quite four when my family moved to Vancouver from Manila. I remember it was the nearing the end of the rainy season, and it was overcast and grey. I was wearing my best dress – crinoline and lace that made a wedding cake of my middle. Tito Jimmy and Tita Boubot, my mother’s siblings, each held one of my arms, and I was swung over the gigantic puddles that the rains had carved into the dirt roads. My shoes got wet, despite their best efforts.
The collective of moving parts in a piano that is responsible for striking the string is called the action. When a key is depressed, a domino-like cascade of events ultimately results in vibrations from the hammer’s contact with the string. These vibrations are carried along the length of the string and pass over a short straight bridge for the bass notes, or a long curved one for the treble, and are kept in place by steel pins. These pins clearly delineate the terminal node of each string and aids in sound transmission to the soundboard.
When I was nine, my parents rented our first piano, and I started lessons with Nancy, a quiet awkward Chinese girl who had just finished grade 12 of the Royal Conservatory of Music Piano Studies. She was just barely nineteen, and lived in a new Vancouver Special on the east side, a white stucco two storey house with red brick paneling the height of the faux oak double doors. It took my father two months to warm up to the idea of allowing my lessons, and another two to rent the piano. It was an old plywood upright that dominated our small living room, but soon I was well on my way to conforming to the vogue that many immigrant families could boast of; a child prodigy.
A typical piano has 226 strings. From the extreme bass, 10 notes each have a single string. To produce the low pitch of these notes, these strings have a steel core which are wrapped in copper or iron wire to reduce the speed of vibration. To avoid being overpowered by the thicker and louder bass notes, the next 18 notes have two strings each, and the 60 notes that lead to the top treble each have 3 strings. The bass notes are strung in a diagonal across the treble to centre them on the soundboard, and to conserve space.
On Tuesday nights, I was allowed to accompany my brothers to their scout meetings at the old church on 41st Avenue. While they learned to tie knots and mend buttons, I would sneak into the dark chapel, turn on all the lights and play Studies on the baby grand to an empty hall. I’d look up at the vaulted ceiling and play without looking at my fingers, liking the reverberations the chapel provided me but refusing to acknowledge its size. I used to hate it when sounds of my struggles attracted curious parents to leave their sons to their ropes and seek out my solitude, and I would always stop and leave, saying I didn’t really know any songs – I was just learning.
A piano frame is called a harp, and is usually made of iron cast in a single incredibly strong structure that can withstand the tension wrought by the strings. The average upright has a combined pull of 50 000 pounds of pressure. Attached to the harp is a hardwood pinblock which houses the steel tuning pins to which each string is coiled. To maintain the proper tension in the strings, the pinblock must be able to hold each pin by friction alone.
My first piano was a monstrosity of an upright. It was stood five feet high, its long thin frame bearing tiny scars where the finish had chipped on the right front corner and in a cloud above the pedals to reveal cream coloured striations. It had a rather ornate music stand that would unfold impossibly from the case, and housed yellowed ivory keys, chipped at B and high D. An octave would barely be enclosed by my five fingers; my little right pinky was perpetually being caught by B’s sharp teeth. And sitting on the edge of a bench that was a just a bit high, my bare feet still recall the places where the brass had worn away on the pedals, and where the geography of these seas pressed against my soles.
The two bridges transmit the insubstantial sounds made by vibrating strings to a thin wooden diaphragm called the soundboard. This is slightly crowned towards the strings to maintain compression and vibrancy, and to keep it from buckling under the tension of the strings. Through a balance of rigidity and flexibility, the soundboard radiates the vibrations into the air.
On page 720, a fugue is described as a polymorphic composition constructed on one or more short subjects or themes, which are harmonized according to the laws of counterpoint, and introduced by the various instruments or voices in succession with various contrapunctal devices.
My father never understood why I couldn’t play sonatas right away. I found myself playing quieter and quieter so as not to disturb him, cutting short my practice time to cut short the time he would berate me for not progressing fast enough. I took to playing just until he was due home from work, and learned to have the case closed and the piano books away well before he came in the door. As the colours of my Piano Studies books slowly deepened from yellow to wine red, I started coming home from school later and later so that I would have to spend only a short while in front of the monster.
In music, pure tones are rarely heard. There is no such thing as an ideal string – one composed of the perfect alloys to allow it to vibrate without any stiffness, and at any frequency. Instead, we hear notes made of a matrix of pure and over tones determined by the vibrational capacity of the materials from which the sound originates, and these in turn, allow us to distinguish the sound of one instrument from another.
By the time I turned a gangly, bucktoothed thirteen, my father had been promoted to master controller at Pacific Coach Lines, and he invested in a new piano. It was smaller; a sleek apartment sized Royale with only two pedals. It stood three foot six, and only just over four across, and was stained a dark mahogany. Looking at it, I felt as if it was missing something that had so appealed to me in the beginning with the first piano. Looking at it, I’m sure he felt it a great achievement, something so much greater than polishing shoes for 50 centavos on the streets of Manila.
An instrument’s timbre is the fusion of all the separate tones the vibrating system produces. Warmth is attributed to the number and relative loudness of the partial tones that accompany the fundamental. Woodwind and most stringed instruments produce harmonic overtones that are simply ordinals of the fundamental. However, there is a force that governs the vibrations of any string that seeks to restore it to its original position after being displaced, and is influenced by the stiffness of the string itself. In a piano, this stiffness generates partial tones that depart from simple harmony as the notes climb to the upper registry.
The less I played, the more clumsy my fingers became on the piano, and I started to forget how to move my hands above the keys. As a teenager, on the very few occasions that I was left the house to myself, I would sit in front of the piano and play snippets of music that had somehow gotten caught in the confused composite that was my memory; old studies, fragments of my imagination. It was at these times that I wished that I had never started piano lessons, and felt shame that I couldn’t be what my father wanted me to be. And I wouldn’t close my eyes, for at any moment, the door could open and I would be caught and reprimanded. I became more quiet and introverted, hidden by baggy clothes and braces.
The resonance of two or more frequencies produce beats equal to the difference in cycles per second between each tone that is sounded. Small differences in fundamentals are amplified in a piano’s inharmonic partial tones. The beats sounded by a chord, or by the multiple strings in 78 of a piano’s keys sound a remarkable simultaneous aural complexity.
A suite is a set or series of related things; an early form of instrumental composition consisting in a series of dances in the same or related key, a modern composition in a number of movements, page 1823.
I left home early. Got involved with a boy who slowly but steadily devoured my confidence. I lost value in my father’s eyes. I remember what it felt like to have the birthday gift I offered as a truce to the silence between us, refused. How afterward I went home, and tore the handmade card into a thousand, thousand pieces. It would be four years before he acknowledged me again.
Sound is a vibration of matter. A vibrating source transmits its movement to adjacent air molecules that in turn agitate their neighbours. In this manner, compression waves travel from the source in spherical ripples through the air.
In my first year of university, I hired movers to transfer the piano from my parent’s home to mine. I sat without words in my living room the first night, my hands resting on the smooth cool surface of its case, making up excuses as to why I couldn’t, shouldn’t play. For years afterward, it sat as a beautiful shelf, holding incidentals – plants, CD’s, the occasional drink. It was rare to see the stark dichotomy of the black and white keys, and even rarer hear anything, even discordant clusters of notes, from the soundboard.
Sound waves are collected by the pinna. The fine membrane of the eardrum is stimulated by the force of each compression wave and vibrates. In a well timed reversal, this drum begins a cascade of vibrations that begin with the hammer to the coils of the cochlea, then carried and transformed along the strings of our neurons from raw data to music in the cerebral cortex of the brain.
Now and then I tell myself I’m saving it for my future children, this misplaced, good intention of my father’s. It took me a long time to get over my anger, and gain a small understanding of what it must’ve been like to leave a life, a country behind and begin by working the graveyard shift at the local corner store to support a family of six. I hope that my children will never know what it is like to be ashamed of your accent when you had mastered English back home, nor have an ocean to separate you from your roots. And we never speak, my father and I, of old disappointment.