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Perri Knize: Grand Obsession

I recently spent a fair amount of time and energy researching a piano purchase, and as I had always concentrated more on the notes than on the instrument making them, it was very educational both to listen closely to a bunch of pianos and to read about differences in construction, tone, action, etc. After all that, Grand Obsession looked interesting; it’s a work of non-fiction about piano manufacture and maintenance (such as all the work that is done on the feel of the physical mechanism, the tuning, and the tone of the sound), wrapped in a personal story about the author’s quest to find the perfect piano and then get the perfect tone on it.

The information on the piano industry was pretty much all very interesting. Knize got to have in-depth conversations with lots of different sorts of people—manufacturers, dealers, tuners, voicers, other players—and I learned a lot from them. There is one chapter on “physics” with exciting updates on topics like “vibrational healing” and the fact that apparently string theory implies that each of us has a fundamental frequency that our “cellular structures respond to”, but I am going to be charitable and just pretend that it doesn’t exist.

The framing story was more problematic for me. The author spends over a year traveling over the whole country in a quest for the sole piano (within her budget) that she can possibly stand the sound of, and then spends a few more years obsessively trying to get it to sound tolerable to her ears after it arrives with a tone that she doesn’t like. The following passage, after an episode replacing the hammers, is representative:

Something is dreadfully wrong with the piano. It sounds horrible. Strident. Harsh. Too much sound pouring from the belly, sound that clashes against itself until it turns into a storm of dissonance that whips itself into a furious tornado of ringing tones that actually hurt my ears. (p. 217)

The reader is constantly reminded of how exquisitely sensitive Knize’s ears are, to the point that I wonder how she can enjoy listening to 90% of piano recordings out there. I don’t doubt that she does have sensitive hearing, but it feels to me like a drawback, like being a supertaster is for many people, rather than a feature. The capper for me is that she (at least during the time that the book covers) is not a very accomplished pianist; the repertoire that she describes learning is pretty basic. It’s actually a little sad to me how much time she spends trying to optimize her piano that could be spent playing it instead. The book reads a bit to me like the story of a someone who decided to write a novel and then immediately spent two years searching for the perfect font.

In the end, I learned to pay attention to the parts that interested me and skim over the parts that bugged me, so I don’t regret reading it, and if she had been less obsessed with finding the perfect sound, she probably wouldn’t have been inspired to write it in the first place. By the end, though, I was ready to move on to an authorial voice I could empathize with a bit more.