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Equal Temperament

A Piano Tuner's Quest for Consonance

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"Perfect intonation is infinitely flexible." As with many things Francis Hunt says about music, it is not immediately clear whether he is speaking technically or metaphorically, about literal acoustic theory or an observation on the human spirit. He looks like Santa Claus is the first thing one thinks.

"When you've got singers or you've got trombone players or violinists, when they're playing music--in the moment--they're constantly adjusting their intonational aspects to the requirements of the moment." As he speaks, Hunt has his ear to the soundboard of an upright Fischer in the basement of the Christ Church of Chicago at Paulina and Cullom. He pulls downward on a tuning hammer (which looks like a socket wrench) and taps middle C with his left forefinger. The note dips, fades. He strikes the key again and pulls on the hammer, and the note slides up a minute degree. "Infinitely flexible intonation," he repeats and sighs, setting down the hammer. "It's the one thing a piano doesn't have."

Hunt, at 43, has been a professional piano tuner for 16 years. Before that he was a student of Edward Kleinhammer, played with Gunther Schuller, contributed alto and tenor recorder for an album (Ripples) with the New Cambrian Society quintet, and was a free-lance bass-trombone player doing primarily opera and ballet work in the Chicago area. During the late 60s and early 70s he also accompanied a long list of popular performers, including Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and Liberace.

The most striking physical aspect of Hunt is the tangle of white beard that juts from his chin like a coral formation. His eyes are steady and clear blue behind rimless glasses, and wisps of white hair ring his bald pate. The beard beneath a carefully shaved mustache evokes, on the heels of Santa Claus, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and new-age guru Ram Dass (ne Richard Alpert).

"What you have to do," he says as he weaves a ribbon of red felt between the piano wires, "is set what's called the equal temperament. Which is a compromise which allows you to play in all 12 key centers equidistantly. You don't lean it in any direction, any particular key. You do that by making most of the intervals slightly out of tune." He peers at his listener expectantly, looking for comprehension or puzzlement, interest or boredom. "Out of tune compared to true intonation--true intonation being the way two violinists would play. You don't determine this by pitch consciousness--nobody could tune a piano by pitch consciousness alone. You have to know the physics that are involved."

Hunt twines his fingers through his beard. Behind where he is seated on the piano bench is the altar of the church. A four-foot brass crucifix dominates above a slate slab and tall candles. A lectern holds a Bible the size of a boom box, and hymnals are piled on the chairs. The names of the primarily Japanese congregation are written on the covers: Nakayama, Watanabe, etc.

"Most of the time we don't listen to pitch, we listen to what are called beats." Here he goes into a discussion that begins technically with specific measurements of a piano wire at 446 cycles per second and one at 440 cps, and the vibrations of the two wires bouncing off each other at the rate of the difference in cps. In response to his listener's questioning look he illustrates vocally, "What you'll hear is wah wah wah WAH WAH WAH wah wah wah WAH WAH WAH--see?"

He returns his attention to the process of tuning the Fischer and changes the subject--or maybe he hasn't. "Perfect sanity!" He pauses for a long beat. The silence is filled with the repetitive thumping of a muted F sharp. The note bends, the hammer teases it into vibration with a D flat. "Perfect sanity is infinitely flexible. The kind of awakeness that allows you to be appropriate to whatever moment you're in. If not appropriate, at least good-natured." He smiles.

Setting down the hammer, he folds his hands in his lap and stares at the soundboard, the wires and brass, the "action." He tugs at his beard and sighs again, puts away his hammer, and wipes his hands on his Levis. He has reached the decision that he is finished. "A tuned piano is very out of tune," he pronounces. "Compared to an a cappella choir, for instance." He falls silent again for a moment, his arms folded over his off-white Wallace Beery shirt, then seems to rouse himself from some distance. "But the fact that it can accommodate all those different key centers, the fact that it can play anything fairly adequately in tune, is really something."

When asked if the piano is a particularly good or bad one, he answers characteristically: "As with people, a few pianos are truly bad, and few are truly great. Great pianos are about as rare as great people."

Sitting in his 1983 Buick station wagon, waiting for it to warm up, Hunt presents a sheaf of handwritten pages and typescripts. He is on his way to a home in Evanston to service another piano. "Here, you can read this while I'm tuning this woman's piano. I won't be able to talk, because I think this piano needs a lot of work. This was something I wrote about five years ago, it's the beginnings of where I'm at nowadays. It should tell you something." He puts on a Greek fisherman's cap or Ringo cap, as it was called in the 60s, and the question is begged--is he in fact an old hippie?

He takes his time, slips the car into first gear and pulls north onto Sheridan Road. "No," he says finally. "I was never really a hippie at all." Considering that he was playing with the Chicago Symphony as an extra player at the time of the Democratic convention in '68, backing up the American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey, playing behind Connie Stevens and Vic Damone, it is likely that he was anything but a hippie.

"Are you going to read that?" he asks.

Some paragraphs into what is obviously a very personal document, one phrase catches the attention: "I guess I was really very unhappy once. I'm not sure I fully realized it for a long while though."

Hunt certainly appears happy these days. He is driving deliberately and conservatively northward. "If you have any questions, you can ask me later at my house. I'll introduce you to my family. My wife bought me some scotch. We could have a drink."

A nod and back to the yellowed typescript.

It really is difficult for me to talk about the past, but I will force myself along.

I was a symphonic trombone player, and for a while a very good one. I lived for the moments of playing trombone. All other moments were either seeking pleasure or waiting for the trombone moments. These trombone moments were heavily evaluated and were never considered good enough. If I played well, there was always something to complain about. I played out a game my mother taught me, rolling around in the imagined inadequacies of my doing, and seeking the scorned compliments of my peers. My motivation for playing as an adult was the illusion that I, the trombone player, was very important in the world, the only thing really; the arrogant puffed-up-ness of my blindered, post-adolescent self, excluding all of the love of music that was briefly there in my unfolding. So, I practiced evaluation and arrogance and was cruel to my colleagues, non-communicative and openly judgemental to them, as I was with myself.

Naturally my playing began to suffer, and I had no love or patience to nurture things back to health, but violently cursed and abused the doing until it became crystallized and dead. I thought I could no longer play my instrument adequately enough to consider myself a trombone player. This was important because I didn't know what else to consider myself . . . suddenly I was as nothing. I hung my head and for years struggled to eke out the necessary notes on the job without drawing too much attention to my inadequacies.

The apartment in Evanston is modest, almost spartan. A large macrame wall hanging dominates one living wall above a dining-room table. An elegant wooden rocking chair sits opposite the spinet that has the brand name CABLE in gold paint above the keyboard. Children's art is pinned or taped to the walls, and a few African violets rest on the mantel. A bookshelf contains two hymnals, some children's books, and Fun With Hieroglyphics. A little girl, four or five, with blond page-boy hair, peeks timidly out of the bedroom every few moments at the Santa-like apparition at the piano.

Hunt assumes a posture like the RCA dog in front of the Victrola as he thumps notes, smiles at the girl, and elicits her name: Priscilla. Over his shoulder he says, "I think it would be best not to mention the people who have influenced me: Huxley, Krishnamurti, Castaneda."

It is not clear why.

I hid from my colleagues, speaking only to a few who protected me from my pain. At home the moments were the terror of waiting for the evening's performance, or the hours at the recording studio. Sometimes my terror was fully realized when the conductor would call on me to play my part at rehearsal in front of all--known at last--crushed beyond belief--dying again and dead in front of all.

My drugs were sex and sleep and books. I made love as many times a day as possible and when alone went for myself immediately . . .

The books that I read were very eclectic in nature. I would go to a store or a sale and come away with 20 or 30 volumes on all sorts of subjects. I stumbled on some of the novels of Aldous Huxley, primarily Time Must Have a Stop and After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. These books had the effect of leading me to the writings of Krishnamurti. . . . I then began to take a real interest in my life . . .

The trombone and its moments were excluded from the learning at this time unfortunately. Those moments were too stressful for me to focus on. The joy of detached observation was dawning first in the low energy moments of my new life, the life away from the trombone.

Hunt is playing an odd series of dissonant notes and strange glissandos on the spinet. The effect is that of an eerie soundtrack to his record of personal transformation. He speaks to Priscilla about another Priscilla he knows and asks her why she is dressed so nicely. Is she going to church? Priscilla nods her head. An infant boy, maybe a year old, comes waddling into the room in his walker. He becomes fascinated by the tools in Hunt's aluminum briefcase--wire cutters, pliers, screwdrivers, C clamps, a saw blade, some wood glue. The boy reaches for the treasures but is unable to touch them.

"I've got a few tools that move that kids like," Hunt says, and hands the boy a small tuning hammer that spins on a bulblike handle. "I've got a micrometer in there, and sometimes I have contests with kids, measuring the thickness of our hairs." He grins and indicates his beard. "I always win, of course."

Then I started reading Castaneda and a book by Alexandra David Neel called Magic and Mystery in Tibet. The effect was instantaneous and powerful. I became aware of the spontaneous movements of archetypical mind--my collective unconscious. It scared the hell out of me. The first moment it occurred I will always remember. It was while carrying my baby daughter over a bridge near our house that the thought came to me how easy it would be to throw her into the river. I was appalled. Where had this come from? Was I a monster? For a while I was so aware of these spontaneous thoughts that I was afraid to be left alone with the child. I was also terribly afraid of the dark and slept with the lights on.

I don't think I will ever fully understand the therapy that played itself out within me while reading the books of Castaneda. Perhaps it could be described as becoming aware of and working through fear, discovering and detaching myself from the workings of the collective unconscious. . . . This to me seems to have occurred at the proper time--that being its most important aspect--and feels retrospectively as a moment of grace.

An hour and a half after he began tuning the piano, Hunt is finished and the young mother emerges from a bedroom to write him a check for a modest amount. Hunt has a policy of charging what he considers fair prices, but does not classify himself as cheap. If he has done extensive work for a wealthy client who can afford his skills, he may consider the larger payment a "scholarship" for the next talented but less well off musician.

His visit to the Evanston apartment is atypical, in that he will often become engaged in conversation with his clients, sometimes never tuning their pianos at all.

Back in his station wagon he says, "The remarkable thing about going into people's homes the way I do is each individual person. What I learned after a while was that people would give me hints about what they were about, what they were really interested in. I'd walk in and wish I had a tape recorder sometimes, just to prove to myself that I wasn't imagining things. Someone might say, 'Well, I would have had the piano tuned a long time ago, but such and such was on my mind.' What I would do, if I felt that this was the most important issue, I might not even get to the piano. We might just sit there and talk. People are always the first issue.

"What I attempt to do is pay as close attention as possible to everything they're saying. After an hour or so you can really fall in love with a person. I am amazed at all the miracles that are dancing around in front of me if I'm just attentive. Everybody needs to be paid attention to."

Driving west toward his home in Albany Park, Hunt recalls one of the more unusual house calls he has made. "It was this woman in Wilmette. I was tuning her piano, and she was in the kitchen, which was straight off to my right. There was a knock on the back door, and she opened it and it was the postman. I keep tuning the piano, and at one point I look over there and they're making out in the kitchen, the postman and this lady. I keep tuning the piano, and they're kissing and everything. And all of a sudden they've got their clothes off and they're screwing on the kitchen floor--while I'm screwing the piano. Finally they finished, and she came in all dressed without a hair out of place, acting as if nothing happened. I didn't act as if anything had happened either." He lets out a sharp laugh.

My relaxation exercises in bed began also to scare me. Occasionally I would not fall asleep as a result of them, but would move into a different state of consciousness. Perhaps that is not an adequate description. Actually what happened as I relaxed deeper and deeper was this. There was an intense total physical vibration that was very frightening--so frightening as a matter of fact that the first half dozen times that it occurred, I jerked myself back into normal waking consciousness. Eventually however, for some reason, I allowed myself to be carried through the vibration to the other side. The vibration resolved. I awoke totally refreshed. I got up and began moving about the house attempting to do things like turn on the lights or open the refrigerator. Nothing worked--I was not able to function physically. Seeing was different also--sort of a memory, but not really. None of the strangeness bothered me. I just sauntered around the house and suddenly awoke--bam--awoke again in bed. A very strange dream--a little too strange, rather like an out of body experience.

At his home Hunt introduces his nine-year-old son Dylan, who is excitedly showing off recent acquisitions in his baseball-card collection: Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Johnny Bench, Gil Hodges, and the prize, Hank Aaron, 1958. "It's worth $60!" Dylan announces.

Bookshelves from floor to ceiling dominate the living-room walls, and a glossy black Steinway grand sits at the front window. Hunt is piano-sitting for someone in Sweden. On the Steinway is a red ceramic Buddha. Hunt pours two whiskies into small silver chalices and seats himself on the sofa. From another room, possibly the basement, comes the maniacal plodding eighth notes of the heavy-metal group Slayer singing, "DIE! DIE! DIE!" His 14-year-old daughter?

"Probably," Hunt nods.

Titles on the bookshelves include Being and Nothingness by Sartre, The Psychology of Alchemy by Jung, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg by Joseph Chilton Pearce, and the anonymous A Course in Miracles. There are also books by Aldous Huxley, Anais Nin, and Virginia Woolf. What is conspicuously absent is a stereo or record collection. The records, he says, are in the basement.

I know many people are fascinated by strange happenings like this, that they seek them and count them as spiritual coups--but I have not found these exotic states or the striving for them helpful. I could be wrong. I certainly am not powerful, or some kind of master of the mystic realms. I am happy though, and for me that is one hell of a miracle . . .

I have never been able to "do" meditation as others seem to be able to practice it. To go step-wise through relaxing and then this, then that, to achieve some end hasn't worked. It never felt right. So I just sit down and let happen what happens. This movement--this thought--this breath--pain--breath--thought--breath--letting be--letting go--letting be . . .

The Zen people that I sat with were quite rigid and very militant and humorless and socially I acted as the buffoon-style thorn in their side. . . . I could never get too serious about sitting meditation. I began to call it "hanging out with is."

Sipping scotch on his sofa, Hunt talks to Dylan about seeing some minor-league baseball games this spring. It is a hobby they share. "You should see him play," Hunt says and raises his eyebrows. Next to him is yet another Buddha, made of porcelain. Small children are crawling over the laughing Buddha's huge lap.

"There are certain basic things in life," Hunt says, leaning back into the cushions. "Happiness is one of them. And you owe it to yourself to find out what happiness is for you. To know if you're happy or not. It's important to know what love is--exactly what it is, how it feels, what it means.

"I'll tell you a story. I used to see this swami, and he taught me about love. I'd go in and talk to him and talk to him and talk to him. He would give me complete attention. Every once in a while he would get this strange look on his face and I would wonder what it was, but I would just continue to talk on and on. After a while I began to realize this look was the result of his total, undivided attention, which no one had ever given me before. That's love. I decided that when I went to my tuning customers, I would give them that same attentiveness."

The heavy-metal rock 'n' roll becomes momentarily louder, then fades as a door opens and closes. Hunt continues, "People only see certain aspects of each other. Even those close to us don't allow themselves to see the person that is emerging."

His daughter, Erinn, appears in the living room. A thin pretty blond with a boyish haircut, she says "Hi" to her father. Hunt introduces his guest and tells her he is being interviewed. She looks puzzled. "Oh," she says, and then a beat later, with a quizzical tilt of her head, "Why?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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