For David Stanwood, a piano has never been just a carefully crafted assembly of wood and wire. He speaks of the instrument in spiritual, reverential, almost human terms. Since he was seven years old, when he auditioned over the phone for a piano teacher who didn’t accept new students under the age of nine, he has worshiped finely tuned pianos.
“I just love pianos,” Mr. Stanwood said, sitting at the keyboard of his Mason and Hamlin piano in his West Tisbury home. “They are remarkable machines, really. There are 10,000 pieces in a piano, but all you have to do is play them.”
As a 28-year-old man, newly trained in the art and science of tuning, repairing and restoring pianos, he wasn’t finding much work in Wareham, where he lived at the time. He asked about the possibility of practicing his craft on Martha’s Vineyard, and his friends told him there was nothing out here. So of course he promptly packed up and visited that summer.
“That immediately got my attention,” Mr. Stanwood said. “When somebody says you can’t do something, that’s a place to look.”
An advertisement in the Vineyard Gazette yielded many phone calls on the day it was published, including one from eminent pianist Ed Wise, who gave him 10 additional contacts for possible piano tuning work. The first piano he tuned was owned by developer John Abrams. Mr. Stanwood found himself not only with a job, but with a warm welcome and a dinner invitation.
“So I stayed.”
Mr. Stanwood recently released a new compact disc of his music called Six Meditations. He calls the recording a coming together of the best work of his life in piano restoration and improvisational music. His meditations are completely improvised. The inspiration comes out of a connection to the piano and the sense of renewal he feels through an exquisitely restored and finely tuned instrument.
“The ear of a piano tuner is trained to hear very subtle sounds,” Mr. Stanwood said. “In a sense, I hear what people feel. I use subtle harmonic sounds. There is a myriad of tones that make up the sound. It’s like when you see white light, you don’t realize it’s make-up of a spectrum of color.”
Mr. Stanwood said he often hears about people who use his music to enhance everything from childbirth, to yoga, to hospice care.
Six Meditations was recorded in his Lambert’s Cove workshop, set on bucolic old farmland where Mr. Stanwood and his wife once raised sheep. He had just finished an 11-month restoration of a Mason and Hamlin piano, considered at least the equal of Steinway or Yamaha in its heyday at the turn of the 20th century. Owned by a client in Maine, the instrument needed an extensive overhaul. When Mr. Stanwood was finished, he carefully tuned the piano. Six Meditations is a series of improvisational recordings that represent the very first notes from the finished restoration project.
“That is the first time it made sound, the first time the piano spoke.”
The final cut on the recording is a 14 minute 29 second double entendre titled Take Me Away. The first meaning is in the meditative sense, and the second is that the owner was about to take the piano back to her home.
“For me, this piece represents all that I could want to achieve when creating music,” Mr. Stanwood wrote in the liner notes. “It transports both pianist and listener to a magical place of time, space, and sound.”
As improvisation, the music takes surprising twists and turns. There is no form to provide comfortable predictability. Mr. Stanwood said improvisation is the art of connecting with something deeper than the conscious self.
“That’s the magic, that’s the challenge,” he said.
Mr. Stanwood’s harmonics are not the only sounds on the recording, made in his West Tisbury workshop. “I played in the company of blue jays and crows and chickens,” he said. “You can hear them on the recording.”
The liner notes of the CD list several musicians Mr. Stanwood considers mentors. He helped many of them tune or modify their pianos. He credits jazz impresario Keith Jarret with the knowledge of how to perform improvisational concerts, something relatively new in Mr. Stanwood’s career. He said Ruben Gonzalez, a Cuban musician who played most recently with the Buena Vista Social Club, showed him how the space between the notes of a chromatic scale can create a whole new meaning for the music. He counts Rudolph Serkin, a well known interpreter of Beethoven sonatas, as a father figure who encouraged his entrepreneurial adventures creating devices and methods that improve the performance of pianos.
Mr. Stanwood is well known for salvaging old pianos. One of them is his own Mason and Hamlin. Another is one owned by another mentor, Jacqueline Schwab.
“I met Jacqueline Schwab when she came to perform at the Five Corners Wintertide,” Mr. Stanwood wrote, in an email follow-up to an interview with the Gazette. “I surprised her by bringing down my Bechstein Concert piano for her to play. She was overjoyed. Later she told me she had to sell her Steinway. Couldn’t afford to store it. I asked her about it and she told me it was her grandmother’s piano that she first learned to play on as a child. I told her she could not sell it and that I would store it for her no charge. Someday she would be able to have it restored. Years later she got a contract with American Express and she restored the piano. When she played it for the first time after it was restored she started playing, then stopped. I could feel the emotion. She said ‘it sounds the way it did when I was young.’”
Mr. Stanwood said the art of improvisation often imitates life on Martha’s Vineyard.
“I’ve heard jazz players say there are no wrong notes. Things happen you didn’t anticipate. You go in the direction your life takes you. You may start with an idea, but you go far beyond anything you imagined.”
Mr. Stanwood will perform his improvisational style on Sunday, Jan. 15, at 4 p.m. The free concert is at the West Tisbury Library, and sales of his new CD will benefit the library.