The Broken Piano In 1975

Marti Leimbach

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My favourite piece of music is Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, an hour-long piece improvised, as all of Jarrett’s concerts are, on a solo piano in front of a live audience. You know the story, right?

For the concert, he’d requested a particular piano, a Bösendorfer. The Bösendorfer originated in Vienna early in the nineteenth century. It is said to be the first concert piano able to stand up to the playing technique of the young virtuoso, Franz Liszt, whose tough, unforgiving treatment of the pianos he played destroyed them in short order.  Perhaps the Bösendorfer’s durability was the reason Jarrett requested one for the concert. The 29-year old jazz musician was known for his eccentric stagecraft, his improvisations played with enormous athleticism and physicality. It’s fair to say he is tough on an instrument, that he plays unconventionally, even wildly, racing over the keys, standing up, sitting, leaning, panting, moaning. His performances move him—and anyone listening—through the disorder and miracle of creative endeavour.  Watching him is watching genius itself, that raw work that is cleaned up only by its imitators.

In short, he needs a good piano.

January 24, 1975. Jarrett arrives to the venue the afternoon of the concert, He is presented with his Bösendorfer. He stands with Manfred Eicher, the man who will one day found ECM Records and who arranged Jarrett’s sell-out concert tour. The piano he has been given for the concert is a Bösendorfer, all right, but it is puny, ancient, totally unsuitable.

Jarrett taps a few keys and finds it is not only the wrong size, incapable of producing enough volume for a concert performance, but also completely out of tune. The black keys don’t all work. The high notes are tinny; the bass notes barely sound and the pedals stick.

Eicher tells the organizer, a teenaged girl named Vera Brandes, that the piano is unsuitable. Either they get a new piano for Jarrett, or there will be no concert.

In a panic, the girl does everything she can to get another piano, but she can’t find one in time. She manages to convince a local piano tuner to attend to the Bösendorfer, but there isn’t much they can do about the overall condition of the instrument.

In the end, Jarrett agrees to play. Not because the piano was fixed up to the extent that he felt comfortable performing, but because he took pity on poor, young Vera Brandes, just seventeen years old and not able to shoulder so great a failure as losing the only performer on a sold-out night.

So he performs on the dreadful instrument. He does what he has to do, not because he thinks it will be good, but because he feels he has no choice.

Tim Harford [described it best], “The substandard instrument forced Jarrett away from the tinny high notes and into the middle register. His left hand produced rumbling, repetitive bass riffs as a way of conveying up the piano’s lack of resonance. Both of these elements gave the performance an almost trance-like quality.”

Jarrett overcame the lack of volume by standing up and playing the piano very hard. He stood, sat, moaned, writhed, and pounded the piano keys.  You can hear him on the recording, the agony of the music, his effort at creating any sound at all. He sweated out what must have been an excruciating hour, and he triumphed. The Köln Concert has sold 3.5 million copies and is perhaps the most beautiful, transformative piece of music I’ve ever heard. It makes me cry to hear it, especially if I recall the courage it took for him to perform in front of a live audience on an unplayable piano with that desperate girl in the wings, wringing her hands, hoping beyond hope that he didn’t rise from the stool and walk out. Hoping nobody noticed her great failure to produce the right piano for this most important occasion. [...]

Keith Jarett later said, "What happened with this piano was that I was forced to play in what was — at the time — a new way. Somehow I felt I had to bring out whatever qualities this instrument had. And that was it. My sense was, ‘I have to do this. I’m doing it. I don’t care what the piano sounds like. I’m doing it.’ And I did.”

Excerpted from this article.  More about Keith Jarrett and the Köln Concert.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the opening created by accepting the reality of the situation completely and making that the basis of our creation? Can you share a personal story of a time you were able to create on a foundation of the reality in front of you? What helps you create in tune with reality?

Add Your Reflection:

12 Previous Reflections:

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    On Sep 17, 2020 luckyluck wrote:
    This is a good story

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    On Sep 14, 2020 David Hewitt wrote:
    A compassionate move led to a creative energy and focus that created something amazing. Limitations and constraints can lead to unfettered freedom. Definitely a lesson to consider.

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    On Sep 9, 2020 Cinnamonhead wrote:
    Beautiful story of perseverance,playing with what you're dealt and making it work!

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    On Sep 9, 2020 Jagdeep wrote:
    I find this story quite inspiring. I have personally witnessed few things in my life. Sometimes, I have met sadness and discouragement in my life because it appeared not the right or easy way. But as I didn't have any other choice, I kept my efforts and life manifested for me in the most wonderful way I could imagine. Perhaps, if I had given the choice, I would not have manifested that life for myself.

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    On Sep 8, 2020 Nidhi Kamath wrote:
    FromKeith Jarrett’s Köln's experience I learnt that the piano is like life ! sometimes it will be totally in alignmentand sometimes it won't it depends on us how we make best of the situation. We can either succumb to the circumstances or see it as an opportunity !

    So once I had to take basics of filmmaking for a group of kids, the group of kids were not as big as I expected and I was a bit disheartened. But I thought I could now give more personal attention to each one of them and also we had more space to shoot !

    One thing I didn't understand about Jarrett's personality is reading his personality in this article if it wasn't for the 17 yr old he might have had the show canceled. So it was a bit paradoxical.


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    On Sep 8, 2020 Mela wrote:
    I apologize for deviating from the subject. Just had to share my comment. I’m so glad to read this article. It gives me so much perspective. I’ve been truly absorbed with this concert of Keith Jarettand his other musicsince the 70’s. His music is transcendental. Sitting in the dark hearing him play is truly uplifting.

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    On Sep 8, 2020 Miriam wrote:
    I love to dance. It brings me joy. I joined a dance group that meets once a month and it is mostly couples who sign up. As a single there were very few chances to dance with a partner. But the joy of the music spun me onto the dance floor and I rarely sat down that first night. Other ladies who were there without a partner also came onto the dance floor and we danced around each other. It was as if the dance was me and I the dance. I expressed myself through music or was it the notes that expressed themselves through me...

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    On Sep 8, 2020 Patrick wrote:
    My all time favorite piano piece as well. Jarret not only made do with the old piano, but they thrived and created something perhaps "better" and beautifully new. We can do the same with everything life hands us. }:- a.m.

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    On Sep 8, 2020 Klaus wrote:
    So what? What do we learn from this piece of ... erm... unbroken admiration for an eccentric musician? Does he feed the hungry? Is there any wisdom of how to interact in a harmonic and friendly way with things, people and the music? ... lol ... Does it not just shows a typical western bahavior of >if you don;t want, I will use force my way< ? ... It simply shows that people have not learnt, yet

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    On Sep 5, 2020 David Doane wrote:
    Accepting the reality of the situation was the opening for Keith Jarrett to work and play with that reality. He started to quit on the project, and then decided to use what he had, making it the basis of hiscreation. Playing the piano the way Keith Jarrett is described to play is to play out of one's inner self. The playing is spontaneous and creative, not scripted and rehearsed. I create on a foundation of the reality I'm in when I'm in the present relating to what I am experiencing in relation to and in response to the person I am with. I don't have an intention or goal; I'm not trying to get anywhere or accomplish anything; I'm simply in and with the process as its happening. In that experience I am creating in tune with the reality I am in. What helps me do that is the aliveness, excitement, joy, and satisfaction in doing it, and the positive outcome that usually comes from it.

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    On Sep 4, 2020 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    Things don't go the way I want or expect. How do I relate to such situations, how di I face such a challenge? I have two choices: accept the reality and do the best I can or turn my face away from it. If I turn my face away I feel myself defeated. If I choose to face it, I don't know what I may end up with. What will be the outcome? I am at a cross road. There have been times in my life when I have backed off and turned my face away from such situations.And there have been times when I have faced them with courage. Facing the reality courageously has helped me grow intellectually and emotionally. It feels like I am flying in the open sky seeing the wonders of the world with fresh and new eyes. I have encountered quite a few situations in my life when I had to make a clear choice. The situation that I would never forget was deciding to marrya woman named Vanleela from another caste, another religion and another class. Since her family was totally againsther marrying me, both of ... [View Full Comment] Things don't go the way I want or expect. How do I relate to such situations, how di I face such a challenge? I have two choices: accept the reality and do the best I can or turn my face away from it. If I turn my face away I feel myself defeated. If I choose to face it, I don't know what I may end up with. What will be the outcome? I am at a cross road. There have been times in my life when I have backed off and turned my face away from such situations.And there have been times when I have faced them with courage. Facing the reality courageously has helped me grow intellectually and emotionally. It feels like I am flying in the open sky seeing the wonders of the world with fresh and new eyes.
    I have encountered quite a few situations in my life when I had to make a clear choice. The situation that I would never forget was deciding to marrya woman named Vanleela from another caste, another religion and another class. Since her family was totally againsther marrying me, both of us had to make a courageous decision. We faced the reality and decided to marry. This was a very powerful experiencefor both of us. It strengthened and enriched our relationship.
    There are times when we need to go beyond the rational mind and listen to the intuitive mind. I trust the inner voice and follow it whole heartedly. It is important for me not to be bound by my question "What if?" and accept "Whatis", A lot of energy is consumed by "What if" mindset. That will make me feel stuck. "What is" mindset helps me to accept the reality as it is and make the right choice.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave[Hide Full Comment]

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