Glenn Gould’s Piano Man
September 8, 2020 6:40 AM   Subscribe

Verne Edquist, a master piano tuner who spent most of his professional life working for one client – Glenn Gould – died peacefully on August 27 after a long illness. He was 89.

"Verne always arrived early to start tuning. Even after he finished tuning, he was required to stay throughout the session, in the event that a note should slip out of tune. I also heard about Gould’s endearingly bizarre coffee orders, his despair over the damaged CD-318, and his desperate calls to Verne late in his life, while re-recording The Goldberg Variations on a Yamaha."
posted by Capt. Renault (8 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Some glimpses in these paragraphs, though: Halfway into a piano, Verne would often hear Miss Mussen call out, "I know it’s you tuning out there, Verne."

And: Well into his career, if listening to a piano recording, Verne knew if the tuning was his.

I was looking at a set of cheap "precision" tweezers under 25x magnification last week, where they look like a pair of aluminum bats hammered into shape with a hatchet. Reading this, I feel like that's probably an honest assessment of how good my hearing is, in comparison to this. I cannot imagine what a blessing and curse it must be to have one of your senses be a tool this precise. Imagine being able to tell a piano was slipping out of tune before Glenn Gould noticed.
posted by mhoye at 7:40 AM on September 8, 2020 [14 favorites]


I have perfect pitch, and once took a pitch test for a study. It included different timbres, such as a piano, a voice, a string instrument. Many notes were in the extreme upper and lower ends of their ranges. I only got 82% right, which they said was common.

Sigh. I'm not worthy.
posted by Melismata at 8:04 AM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

Not only is this fascinating, but also it reminds me of Richard Brautigan's wonderful short piece about Ernest Hemingway's typist, which I haven't thought of for more than forty years. So double thanks, Capt. Renault!
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 8:47 AM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I know just a little about piano tuning. I have tried tuning pianos a few times, and it is both richly rewarding and incredibly infuriating. It is an exorcise in many compromises. There is no one right way - each piano is a new consideration, and tuning it can be come at from multiple angles.

A few things stood out to me:

"He had a fishing tackle box that he had converted to a tuner’s toolbox." - I would love to see that tuning equipment displayed alongside Glenn Gould's piano, so they can keep each other company as they did when he was playing it.

"Unlike many tuners, who banged a key as hard as they could, he kept it gentle, careful not to hit the key any harder than he had to." This seems unusual to me. Unlike a guitar, AFAIK with a piano you normally would tune down to the pitch you want. I think this is because a) when tuning up, it is hard to be precise (piano tuning pegs are more crude than the tuners you get on, e.g., a guitar), and b) the strings are more prone to slippage. So, you assume they will slip by tuning a bit high and then pounding the key to make it slip and bring the pitch back down to where you want it. I expect his approach worked because he worked on one piano extensively and was able to get to know it, and condition it, so it behaved in a way that he could be more gentle. Also note, "...But Verne refused, telling Gould that the tuning pins were so loose they needed to be replaced." - you can't tune softly with pegs that are loose and will slip.

After a few hours piano tuning, my hearing is affected for days, in that I become hyper-sensitive to pitch, and it really does feel like a super-power.
posted by SNACKeR at 9:09 AM on September 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

posted by JoeXIII007 at 9:56 AM on September 8, 2020

What a remarkable life. I enjoyed the biography Wonderous Strange about Gould many years ago, and I don't recall it mentioning Gould's tuner at all, let alone that he served on-call through Gould's late-nite sessions. Being so central, so devoted to Gould's craft, but so anonymous... I get it when the author remarks on Edquist's bitterness at never even hearing a "nice job".

And beyond Edquist's story from hardship on the rural plains to big-city concert halls, I'm also amazed at his skill with his craft. I too have tried my hand at piano tuning -- it fulfilled my 'job shadowing' requirement in high school -- and I found it to be unbelievably, incomprehensibly difficult. Sure, I generally have a lousy ear and only the most charitable person would describe me as patient... but even allowing for these weaknesses it really did seem like some sort of black-magic to take a hand-me-down spinet piano and create some harmony from it. I remember a lot of "do you hear that?" Me: "No." I stunk at it! And my work was light-years from the pitch-perfect tuning demanded of Edquist. Super-power, indeed.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 12:04 PM on September 8, 2020

Theophrastus Johnson, you might like A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano; ... it is the close interaction of Gould and Charles Verne Edquist, the nearly blind piano tuner, with a Steinway CD 318 concert piano, that lifts the book above the usual biography.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:30 PM on September 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Iris Gambol -- for sure. Already checked the Chicago Public Library -- there's a copy available! Once I get my overdue materials returned I'll place my hold on it.

In the biography I mentioned, the main foil (co-conspirator?) for Gould's eccentricity was his teacher, Alberto Guerrero. But that was earlier in his life; in my recollection, the biography painted a picture of Gould's later years to be a series of more solitary eccentricities. Of course, this post got me to digging Wondrous Strange off of my shelf and thumbing through the index to see how accurate my memories had been.

The verdict: Edquist is mentioned in the book, but as the "local piano tuner". It alludes to friendly banter between Gould, Edquist, and Gould's producer Andrew Kazdin during recording sessions later in his life, but other than recalling "double-doubles" (the coffee orders w/two creams, two sugars), and mention of phone calls between the two after CD318 was damaged, there's no details into the relationship of Edquist and Gould.

Also curious: there's a footnote saying Edquist recalled Gould detecting tuning issues before he could. Hmm.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 7:45 PM on September 8, 2020

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