A Romance on Three Legs (review: 4/5)

a romance on three legs by katie hafner
Spoiler: Katie Hafner‘s book, A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, is one of the most enjoyable I’ve read this year, a really nice little page-turner.

Glenn Gould was one of the great pianists of the 20th century, known as much for his personal quirks as for his musicianship. Gould’s eccentricities are pretty well documented. His increasingly reclusive, kind of paranoid personality led him to eventually abandon the concert stage in favor of the recording studio:

Gould had come to hate the risk-taking associated with live performances and grew tired of what he called the “non-take-two-ness” of the concert experience. He believed that people were just waiting for him to mess up, and he resented it. ‘To me this is heartless and ruthless and senseless. It is exactly what prompts savages like Latin Americans to go to bullfights.’

The new-to-me, perhaps even more interesting character in this book is Verne Edquist. Edquist got cataracts as a child. Surgery didn’t work and he lost most of his sight. He was sent to a school for the blind to learn a trade, where he took up piano tuning. His ears were very good, and he gradually worked his way up the ranks from basic tuning, to regulating the piano action (tweaking the mechanics), to tone regulating (tweaking the timbre and tone color across the full range of the instrument).

The third character in this book is CD 318, a Steinway concert grand piano. Gould was an extremely sensitive musician. His enviable technique and his own neuroses made it especially hard to find a decent piano. After flirting with a couple other pianos, the light, fast touch of CD 318 won him over. Edquist would become the primary tuner to understand Gould’s needs and service his instrument. The book tells their story.

Along the way, there are a couple nice digressions that lead into how pianos are made, how piano tuners work, the origins of sponsored musicians with exclusive company endorsements, and the history of Steinway & Sons (during wartime they were forced into making coffins and airplanes, among other things). And there are a couple nice tidbits like, “in the early twentieth century, piano tuners outnumbered members of any other trade in English insane asylums.”