The Well-Regulated Action: In Defense of the Re-creative Artist

Long read guest post by Jack Kohl

I sometimes meet with apologies from venues when a piano’s action may not be serviced to top form. I reply with a smile that such apologies are unnecessary, for in my youth I had to pull up as many keys as push down upon them when playing on battered uprights before elementary school children. In those days I played as often with my palms up as down, like a day at the gym dedicated to both push and pull. Once, however, just before a recital in a private South Carolina home, I encountered a woman whose main concern was – though my naked hands were plain before her – that I remove any rings I might be wearing before playing upon her piano’s vulnerable ivories.

Something unexplored lurks in the human mind in regard to protecting and maintaining the piano keyboard and its action, and I have been giving this mystery considerable thought. Many people tap their fingers on a tabletop when they are confronted with a dilemma. One might expect a pianist to take double recourse to this outward expression of resolving an inward problem. But in my case – and I have been meditating this puzzle in many places: at my own home piano; while on walks in my native village, during which I study the fossilized trackways of dogs in sidewalk concrete; and, also, at a New York City exhibition opening of paintings by a very noted figure of the piano world – one might note my right foot, at any time during the day, in silent, reflexive action, raising figurative dampers as if onto a still unrealized insight, as if attempting to apply an imagined legato of reconciliation unto considerations too separated to be united by the connective force of equally figurative legato finger action.

We come to pedal all things in our mind; we come to raise the dampers between all events – even the most wildly and seemingly polarized – and endeavor to connect them in the driest halls of our consciousness. Even when the higher part of my mind falls out of this practice, it is not long before a hole forms in the sole of my newest right dress shoe, near the ball of my foot. And even when that hole is just forming, I am made to note it as soon as I walk to a hack accompanist’s job in the rain – and my mind goes back to pedaling at all hours.

I have been pedaling hard to connect the three sites I name above, for I have had personal investments in all three, including the last, though I am no painter. But I, too, like many re-creative artists, have felt a compulsion to disavow performance as my main identity. This happened rather early for me, and I turned to writing (novels and essays) over performance art because I was convinced that the former would leave a permanent mark whilst the latter dissolves at once into air. I have discovered that both, however, under the powerful light of honest appraisal, vanish with nearly equal speed.

I met a musician friend, a percussionist, for lunch recently, so that we could discuss the trade of writing. He told me of playing a performance of Haydn’s “Creation” with a high level ensemble. A videographer had been employed to document the performance. My friend was proud of his role in the concert. But every time the camera was on him, and he was about to play, the camera then panned or cut away. I told my friend that he should view that panning as Providential, that he should not care to leave his mark as the mere executant of another man’s work. Haydn’s “Creation” is Haydn’s creation after all. I told him that if he has the writer’s impulse that following its trade is the way to keep the best intellectual control (true), to say something perhaps utterly new (true), and to leave a lasting mark (false). I say false because when the figurative camera of my mind pans to the spines and folders of my collected written works, it pans then away instinctively before they can speak. We can never watch ourselves.

In the finished basement of my childhood home, stands the piano I principally use still when I practice. Its action is in good working order. In another room of that same basement, for quite some time stood the old Francis Bacon player piano upon which I first learned to play. That piano had very yellowed and ancient authentic ivories, and in many places on its keyboard it had irreparable, stuck, keys. When I would stare at that ruinous action, I often wondered if elephant tusks had been the material of choice because they reminded one that an animal that leaves such mighty footprints has its greatest feature – its tusks – thrashing forever in the unimpressionable air? Was not the suggestive strength of the piano keyboard already in play when mastodons cut the glaciated atmosphere?

But not until recently – though I always knew the tracks were there – did I start to think about how, just below the carpeting underneath both pianos’ locations, there is a lengthy fossilized dog trackway in the concrete of the house foundation. One can see the uncovered section of the tracks to this day in the adjacent garage, where they make their way in and out from the driveway. The tracks vanish where the floor of the garage meets the driveway. No one can trace the dog’s approach to the foundation from his day of liberty in 1972, and no one can trace where he went after he left by nearly the same path by which he entered.

I have been rising of late from the well-regulated instrument that still sits astride the fossilized dog trackways, and I have been taking walks with my own living dog. He and I have been making a survey of all the fossilized dog trackways in our native village of Northport on Long Island. There are two great examples on Woodbine Avenue, one on Main Street, one on Highland Avenue, one on Sandy Hollow Road, and a very fine and complex one on Washington Place. Perhaps I started to note the trackways that are available to me that parallel the ancient prints I have visited often at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. There I have stared down to the trackways and remarked to myself: that if one’s work is of value, someday, someone, will note it. For even the casual actions of unmindful dinosaurs from millions of years ago have not, at last, escaped detection.

But as I had felt in my final admonition to my percussionist friend, there seems something false in the permanence of legacies of any kind. I have been taking walks to Washington Place’s fossil trackway to think this through. I had discovered recently the Washington Place trackway because I had been compelled to take to its east sidewalk because two little white dogs were out in the yard on the west side of the street. A lady came out to gather them and mutter, to grumble reproaches to her tiny dogs for their combativeness, for I walk with a Rottweiler.

On three squares of concrete right before one house along that east sidewalk of Washington Place, are some splendid fossil prints, leading principally north away from the address, a frozen moment from which the instant before it is hidden, and a moment from which the instant after it is hidden, for the fossils are on only those three squares of an otherwise blank and lengthy sidewalk.

Such fossils always imply humor to me – humor from the printmaker. But the running dog had equal joy on the dry slabs of the sidewalk before and beyond the wet concrete. There is something in the glee that dogs find in locating the wet section, the blank slate, that is roped off to them. Vandals and dogs have no hesitation to christen a new, blank, notebook. They do not hesitate; they do not lose heaps of ideas because they fear what is best to record first – or fear what format the blank journal seems to demand.

The dog pedals with the joyful pant of his living tongue. The concrete tracks are a record of keys that stuck for him. But the solid pavement before and after the tracks were as the better regulated keyboard; they let him race and leave no record. What strikes me is how much a poorly regulated or humidity-plagued piano action stands in analogy to wet concrete on the sidewalk: individual paw prints can be immortalized until perhaps all the blank is taken up. A good action is like a dry sidewalk: always repelling any impressions, always keeping itself clear of print.

A book to its author is somewhat like the wet concrete. It captures the running mind of the writer as it passes over it. The figurative concrete hardens and captures the pawprint traces of his thoughts. But there is an equal amount missing in the record – as much is missing from the book of the run of the writer’s mind as is missing from the dog’s run over wet concrete when it occurred. There is something very significant about the blank blocks of concrete surrounding the printed areas – the blocks that were there to set the dog to speed and receive him at the end but could take no prints, for they were already dry and solid. At last, the sidewalk sections that record the prints and the adjacent ones that had been dry (and show nothing) seem equal to me. Both sections suggest to me that a re-creative artist’s and a creative artist’s legacy are ultimately the same. Legacy is, at last, only a well-used present.

The well-regulated keyboard is like that solid, already dry, concrete – and is like the ground leading up to the desk, to the manuscript in progress, to the studio, the easel – as much a trackway itself as it seems but a runway for getting up to speed for the impressionable trackway. In fact, are we not most uncomfortable in the area that takes impressions? Does not the dog shake his paws just after he hits the figurative plaster or manuscript of the concrete? I note that dog fossil trackways rarely double over themselves. And when we part from our own impressionable trackway – the writer’s desk, say – do we not seem to take to a fresher, healthier, more sensitive material, dip our pen in a better well, though of invisible ink – the ink like that of the well-regulated action, which keeps no records?

The writer must value that horizontal dash, what lives above the print sections and the unimpressionable slabs, as much as do the performing artist and the dog. The tracks do not immortalize the runner’s dash. They only immortalize another witness’ review of that dash – or the dasher’s review of his own run, in which case he is reduced to another witness, as alienated from his former self as if he is another man. All means of record keeping, all the stuck keys, omit the horizontal, the play of forward and lateral motion. The sticking keys leave a record only of vertical, separate, attacks. The kind of legato I describe is not captured by finger work, pedal work, or even by a recording device. It is only achieved in the mind in the moment. The best reader of any passing moment pedals in his mind and disavows his desiccated tracks. The dog pedals in his horizontal glee, not via his recorded landings. The latter are only as the punch holes in a player piano roll.

Somehow the wet concrete, that which allows supposed immortalization, is no more impressionable than the surrounding hard blocks that accept no prints. The most well-regulated piano action shows no sign of what happened at its keyboard after the playing is over. The well-regulated action shows no sign that one was there after one is gone. It is a like an Etch-A-Sketch toy that shakes and clears itself.

And recordings are like a file, an archive, of stuck keys. Perhaps that is the real reason they become so odious to their creators – and, ultimately, to others – over time? Recordings, even notated compositions, are but signs of stuck keys. They stand in the way of the future. A well-regulated piano is rather like the ground just before and after a trackway; the keys do not stick. The dog who left the fossil prints leaves a clue in his incomplete trackway: that the choice of the wet concrete was not by design, but partial and by chance – part of a greater sequence. Tree roots push the old trackway slabs up, like scores onto the piano’s music rack, yet no matter how we play and run, the best mediums (the well-regulated actions, the hard sidewalk), reject all efforts to leave new tracks.

The tangible objects of a body of creative work – the books, the canvases, the scores – are like pianos with irreparable, sticking, keys. Imagine having to cast aside and store each piano on which one has performed after only one use! One would be left with the opposite of a piano showroom; one would be left with a piano charnel house. One would be left with slabs of stored trackways, but soon only a collection of a hoarder’s tragedy. The record left on the piano with sticking keys is less important than the record one cannot see in adjacent and perfectly regulated keyboard actions. Who among piano majors has not, late on a weekend night, moved from piano to piano in the vacant practice rooms, as if to rehearse on varying actions? Who has then not thought of such charnel houses but for the work of the piano technician? The piano technician is as a priest in confession – creating the forward moving motion of inalterable blank slates.

These ideas absolve, even vindicate, the concert pianist – or any re-creative or interpretive artists or performer whose medium is time-dependent – from his seeming dependencies on the trackways of predecessors. He lives a sort of hopscotch life in respect to trackways – and would seem to be helpless after the tracks end, and in the area before the start. But whether it is one’s own original work or another’s, only the living, unrecordable utterance is of ultimate value. I have known many Henrys, but not a one seems to share the same name when I hear it.

Only the most transient creation is the most eternal and ineffaceable. There is no impressionable material to record how a solitary consciousness improves a moment. A pianist feels his work is written in haste onto atmospheric sheets that are immediately cast into a fire of succeeding silence. But intuition tells me more and more there are no safe and permanent library shelves or secure archives. One comes to suspect that knowledge and achievement are not cumulative, but that growth of mind is really a succession of abandonments.

Always the well-regulated action protects us. We in turn are careful to keep it from proximity to windows and heaters, and we add climate-control devices. We seem to want them so well-regulated that no cavity can ever form on the figurative elephant’s teeth; sometimes the strings look like floss meant to tackle tusks.

The well-regulated action works then to push back instantly against all sounded notes, so as to erase the marks of utterance, to keep our philosophy high. The well-regulated action works in analogy to the sun and the moon, working to render blank the shorelines by cleansing tides. Does this not suggest, perhaps, why we favor celestially black lacquer on concert grand pianos? The darkness of the cosmological voids suits the mystery of such instruments.

We are right to worship the achievement of the inventor of the piano’s mechanism. One can credit Cristofori for his genius in respect to turning a harpsichord into a piano, but his mechanism’s receptivity to later improvement in respect to speed may be its greatest legacy. I notice the common human trait of impatience at elevators – as if repeated pressing of the call button will somehow accelerate an arrival. But on the best pianos the repetition has an answer for every attack. I do not think any facile pianist will disagree that there is no other button that is always so ready to meet our efforts to push it in faster succession. We even have fingerings for this: 4-3-2-1 (or alternate attacks between the two hands on one note). Again, the greatest representatives of modern actions will reset and give a note for each of our strikes. We cannot dance fast enough to leave a fossil on a well-regulated action.

Now that I have lingered over my home piano and one of the fossil trackways in my own village, I wish to tell of the third consideration I named at the start: my recent time at the art gallery on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. I was early for the 6:00 PM opening, so I spent time alone on one of the benches in the dog park adjacent to the American Museum of Natural History. I watched many dogs run about with glee over a firm, dry, unimpressionable, dust. I entered the gallery after friends arrived, and with all the thoughts I have given above very much in mind, I was struck immediately by the arrangement of the room. On the three interior walls of the small space were the paintings. But of most significance to me was that the gallery was also a performance space. A grand piano stood before the front window; thus it stood principally before a canvas that can hold no images. The canvases that reject permanence – the keyboard and the window – were placed together well.

Again, on the walls perpendicular to the piano were the paintings. If their canvases could have provided the same unremitting challenge as the well-regulated piano and its action before the front window, then those canvases would have been as trampolines to the paint as soon as it had been applied. The paint would have bounced back with each brush stroke; or, like the front window glass, the paint would pass right through and absorb the mark of the artist no more than a footfall on the edge of the tide. But the hanging paintings were as stuck, as sticking keys. The piano stood there as the ultimate, unremitting, blank canvas. The well-regulated action is as an infinitely perfected piece of glass, one that permits no reflections: all of the performer’s inner spiritual photons pass through, consigned to an endless outbound journey. The piano keyboard is as a revolving door that leads somehow ever forward. Scratches, fossils from the nails of virtuosos, may remain in the fallboard, but nothing fossilizes in the keyboard below.

What distinguishes the great halls of the different branches of the arts from each other? A library must be expanded, for its shelves begin to creak – even, to a microscopic degree, if its holdings are electronic. The same holds for museums. Their rate of accession must always threaten their space and future. But a performance space does not augment its holdings with time. It deaccessions a work as soon as it is acquired. In virtually the same instant a work is gained, displayed, and then deaccessioned; for it vanishes by a power beyond our will. A concert hall is a library with the most voracious kind of bookworm.

The piano action is as an artist’s pencil with tip and eraser on the same end. It resets constantly and always offers no more than the present to its user. Not only does it efface even the record of one’s most superior virtuosic predecessors, it erases the record of oneself from even an instant before. I know of nothing that welcomes so much the utterance of only the present moment. Only the player sitting at the bench, sitting perpendicular to the keyboard can hear the performer whose arms move parallel over such a resistant fossil bed.

A well-regulated piano’s action will no more let a key stay down than will the water in a pool permit one to keep a ball under the surface. One can keep the ball submerged if complete focus is rendered on that one ball. But let one’s focus and downward force be set off balance in any way and the ball pops up – as will the key of any chord if one’s proper weight is not maintained upon it, as is often the case with one’s outer (and sometimes inner) fingers in wide or densely voiced chords. The well-regulated action will no more retain a shape than a pool of water. But though the glory of public performance may lure many a narcissist to the trade, the action of the instrument at the same time does not permit Narcissus to see himself reflected in the pond of keys.

Probably the only significant fossil permitted to form in proximity to a well-regulated piano action is on the music stand. Perhaps that is the real reason we respect so much those who play from memory. The audience does not so much crave the impression of improvisation as it desires the reassurance of seeing the instrument admit no fossils – seeing the keyboard insist that the canvas is always unfilled, that all prospects are ahead even when time is up. The encores are but preludes.

The grand piano’s lid is shaped not unlike an artist’s palette. But when the lid is opened, is it not on such an angle that any figurative paint could not but slide away? That surface, too, seems to hint at an unremitting will toward a blank slate, toward an infinite future. Perhaps that is why there is something unnerving to me when I play on pianos in private homes where the lids are closed and covered with family photos and other impedimenta. A pianist craves those things to be removed from the lid. Perhaps many a pianist practices with the lid up because then the symbol of a palette that sloughs away its paint augments the suggestiveness of the well-regulated action that retains no history.

Perhaps the reminder of an unremitting and endlessly demanding future is at times too much for some? Perhaps it is not to keep the dust away that we have fallboards on pianos? When one closes the fallboard of a piano it is like the gesture of closing the eyes of a dead man, for we fear those eyes are still seeing. And, to boot, we often cover a closed piano as if with a shroud. Something lurks within these gestures; they are inspired by more than fear of dust and ghosts.

Under very rare circumstances for a pianist, Nature conspires to augment the perpetual prospective blank of the piano action’s canvas. Once, when I had cause to perform on a piano positioned on an outdoor platform, an intense beam of sunlight passed directly over the keyboard for a time. Then it was as if I was challenged by an even greater unimpressionable canvas. The white keys, despite that intense sunlight, were not heated, it seemed, much more than they would have been under other circumstances. C major was not unpleasant. All white keys seem in accord with each other, even though, after close inspection, one will notice that not a one in the compass of an octave is cut the same! I groped the C major sections under that sun as when one walks barefoot in a beach parking lot in summer and strides, tightrope-style, the lightly painted lines of the parking spaces.

But the black keys! The black keys became hot. They were hot enough to make me anticipate the moments when my fingers could leave them. The farther a key signature was from the twelve-o’clock position on the circle of fifths the more uncomfortable it was to touch that keyboard. The sun had augmented the brevity of the action’s retention. I cannot recall – even from times under the brightest stage lights – another case when a keyboard presented two temperatures to the hand.

Yet under common circumstances a pianist must warm up his own hands. Most other instruments warm up with the player. But the piano – ever-resetting – for the most part remains cold as the Cosmos, giving harsh but vast reassurance amidst the mortal paintings, amidst the canvas fossils on the walls and the books on the shelves, of a ceaseless breadth of time that is yet to be; as the piano in that Columbus Avenue gallery sat in that center of canvases, silent as a Sphinx, yet not quite radiating riddles nor music yet to be written or played, but, instead, a promise of infinitely incipient and prospective time.

When I left the gallery I walked with brisk steps to the subway, and I kept my eye upon the blank slabs of the cheerful and hard sidewalk, and only looked up to dodge the herds of the professional dog walkers – each living animal with a tongue protruding like a damper pedal from the midst of ivory teeth.


Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press.

www.jacksonkohl.com