Posts Tagged ‘piano’

Something a little different this week …

My grandma wanted my grandpa to buy a car, according to family lore.

Instead, he went out and spent $100 — in 1941 money — to buy a machine that not only played 78-rpm records, but recorded them, as well.

(This was distant early warning of two Blumenau family predilections that continue to this day: making homegrown music, and preserving a record of absolutely everything.)

The finest musicians in New York City couldn’t make recordings in those days. But enthusiastic amateur Bill Blumenau could sit in his parlor in nearby Stamford, Connecticut, and record as many popular tunes as he wanted — or, at least, as many as his budget for blank discs would allow.

These recordings survived the decades by jumping from format to format, always a half-step ahead of obsolescence. They were dubbed from the original 78-rpm discs onto reel-to-reel tape, probably in the late ’50s or early ’60s.

Later down the road — I’m guessing ’80s sometime — my dad copied the reel-to-reel tape onto cassette. And just a few weeks ago, he copied the recordings from cassette into digital format.

(The songs never made it into quadraphonic sound, or onto 8-tracks. Ah, well, you can’t have everything.)

Once he’d converted them, my dad sent me five .m4a sound files of my grandpa playing the hits of the day on his upright piano, when he was 10 years younger than I am now.

As soon as I’d given the recordings a listen — and some noise reduction — I began to think about doing something creative with them.

I could have overdubbed myself playing along with my grandpa, Natalie Cole-style. But that didn’t seem interesting or satisfying to me.

Then it hit me:

I’ve been taking my grandpa’s raw material (his calendar entries) and turning it into something new and different (blog posts) for a while now.

Why not do something similar with his snippets of music?

This week, I am proud to unveil the results … The Original Soundtrack to Hope Street, if you will.

Hope's Treat

Cover photo by Bill Blumenau, circa 1958.

A nine-track EP, Hope’s Treat, featuring my manipulations of my grandpa’s piano playing, is available as a free Bandcamp download.

Using audio software, I’ve rearranged, rethought and reimagined his 70-year-old piano solos into something different. Not necessarily better — that’s an eye-of-the-beholder judgment — but different.

The results are a little weird, yes, and not conventionally tuneful. Still, most of the tracks run only about a minute long, and the whole shebang runs maybe 12 minutes. So it’s a quick listen — you don’t have to devote an hour of your life to it.

(Unless you like it, of course. In which case, feel free to download it, play it repeatedly, tweet about it, post it on Facebook, and write it on the back of your jean jacket. You can even dub it back to cassette or reel-to-reel, if you can figure out how.)

Here’s a sample:

Hope’s Treat is probably cooler in concept than execution. For one thing, getting 70-year-old static out of a sound recording is like getting 70-year-old wine out of a wedding dress. And when you start looping, slicing and altering that 70-year-old static, it doesn’t always go along nicely.

No matter: This was still worth doing.

And I’d like to think I did it in the same spirit my grandpa had when he turned on his new machine for the first time, flexed his fingers, and started playing.

Just to recap: Hope’s Treat is available as a free download here. If you like either the music or the concept behind it, consider posting a link to this blog entry on whatever platform you usually use to hold forth. It ain’t fine art, but I kinda like it.


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My dad sold his piano a week or two ago.

It was a seven-foot Mason & Hamlin, made next door in East Rochester, N.Y. And when I was growing up, its voice was almost as familiar in my house as the voices of my family members.

My dad, a semi-pro musician, would keep his chops in shape and wash off some of the mental grunge of corporate life by sitting down at the piano just about every night and playing for 15 or 20 minutes. Often it was stride-style, like Fats Waller; from time to time, if he was preparing for a gig, it might be something more formal.

The piano joined the household either a couple months before I did or a couple months after.

One of my dad’s old college friends has told me a story of coming to visit when I was a toddler, and seeing my dad playing me notes on the piano to try to ascertain whether I had perfect pitch. (Unfortunately, I don’t. Sorry, Dad.)

Now my folks are retired, and shedding possessions, and lightening their load,  and thinking about maybe moving to a different house.

Plus, today’s digital keyboards can capably simulate the sounds of everything from a baby grand to a clavinet to a softly plucked jazz guitar. My dad has a good digital keyboard, and it’s less imperative now to have a big piano in the living room than it seemed 40 years ago.

So off it went, a week or two ago, trucked off to a new owner in Buffalo.

I would guesstimate that my dad has lived 60 of his 70 years in a home with an acoustic piano of some sort, with the exceptions being college and his first five or six years of marriage. So this is a minor but interesting milestone in Blumenau family history, this transaction.

My disheveled dad at the piano with his bass-playing, pajama-wearing younger son. 1981.

My disheveled dad at the piano with his bass-playing, pajama-wearing younger son. 1981.

My folks hosted Christmas parties for many years at which my dad's musician friends would show up and blow a couple sets of jazz. This pic is also probably circa 1981, and early in the night -- these parties drew a fair number of people.

My folks hosted Christmas parties for many years at which my dad’s musician friends would show up and blow a couple sets of jazz. This pic is also probably circa 1981, and early in the night — these parties drew a fair number of people.

I can’t think of a calendar entry from my grandfather’s calendars in which he surrenders anything of that level of significance. (Except possibly for his job, which would be an interesting post, but not here and now.)

So instead, I’ll link this to a calendar entry in which my great-grandma comes to the end of something musical that, I imagine, mattered  a fair amount to her.

June 21, 1969.

June 21, 1969.

I’ve mentioned before that my great-grandma was a piano teacher. She taught my dad how to play. And she held a recital for her students every year at the house on Hope Street, followed by some low-key refreshments.

(A few of her former students have even made their way here to the blog, which is a marvelous thing.)

Anyway, the calendar entry above is the last calendar entry I have a picture of that mentions my great-grandma’s annual recital.

She would have been 82 years old in June of 1969, and probably about ready to stop teaching the basics of piano to the youth of Stamford.

I’m also fairly sure that her piano teaching ended sometime around 1970, when she went through a period of suffering spells of disorientation. (I’ve written about that before too.)

So, while her last recital could have been in 1970 or ’71, I’m going to presume for the purposes of this blog entry that the June 21, 1969, calendar entry represents another Blumenau family goodbye to the world of the piano. Not to the instrument, per se — her upright piano remained in the living room at Hope Street after she stopped teaching — but to a certain connection to the instrument.

My grandparents’ upright piano made the move with them from Stamford to Rochester in the mid-’80s. It was not of the same quality as the Mason & Hamlin, though, and I don’t know what became of it. I suspect it was disposed of without great ceremony, which was in keeping with its age and condition.

The Mason & Hamlin may be the last piano in the  family for a while, as my brother and I have broken the keyboard tradition. (He took lessons for  a while; I was never coordinated enough to manage 88 keys.)

I do have a couple of guitars lying around the house, though. As I write this, I find myself thinking about some future time when my hands are too gnarled to play them and I finally sell them off, bringing another generational shift to the Blumenau family’s long relationship with music.

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