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The perfect piano? It’s named Marlene

Special to The Times

THERE’S something mysterious about the power of music to move people. It can ambush us in all sorts of places -- in church, in the car, even while we’re meandering down the aisle of a supermarket -- infusing us with an overwhelming longing, or a flood of well-being or, best of all, a burst of joy. Readers who have ever been reduced to tears by the sound of a cello or transported by an aria on the radio will understand Perri Knize and her otherwise inexplicable quest for the voice of one particular piano.

The daughter of a professional clarinetist, Knize grew up in a musical household, learning to listen -- to really hear what’s happening in a piece of music. When she was old enough to study her own instrument and asked for piano lessons, her father suggested she learn an orchestral instrument instead, since such lessons would be offered free at school. Knize didn’t argue and started on the cello -- her father’s favorite and the instrument he wished he’d studied -- then switched to the flute, setting aside her piano dreams until her late 20s, when she studied piano for a time at the Mannes College of Music. But she put her lessons aside. (“There were more urgent and pressing demands weighing on me such as food, shelter, and establishing a career.”)

At age 42, Knize, now an environmental-policy reporter, decides to again take up the instrument she has loved since childhood. She resumes her lessons and sets out to buy a piano of her own; alas, her discerning ear creates problems. The resulting “piano odyssey” is almost as wide-ranging and nail-biting as Homer’s. She spends two years driving and flying across the country to find her piano -- preferably an upright that will fit into her small house in Montana. Her ear tells her immediately whether one is suitable. Some are too “bright” in tone, some are “annoying, brittle,” some “lack dimension.”

Then she happens upon a Grotrian Cabinet grand: “A soul seems to reside in the belly of this piano, and it reaches out to touch mine, igniting a spark of desire within me that quickly catches fire. This disembodied being is sultry and seductive, as if Marlene Dietrich reincarnated as the soul of this piano, and is using my hands to belt out a torch song.”

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She is in love. But it is star-crossed love, because her purse is too small for the $32,000 sticker price. Knize turns away, flies home, trying to rid herself of the haunting memory of Marlene’s voice. After all, she’s no prodigy; a normal, everyday piano is all she needs. But that bell-like tone is simply too persuasive. Knize refinances her house to pay for the grand and the living-room remodeling necessary to accommodate it, certain that she and Marlene will live happily ever after.

Which is when Knize’s piano journey really begins.

The piano is shipped from New York and arrives in Montana, but the sound is not right. Perhaps it was damaged in transit? Over the next three years, Knize will spend countless hours talking with technicians, visiting piano experts, communicating with the online piano community, trying to recapture the particular Dietrich timbre. “What, in practical, technical terms, is the difference between the Marlene who seduced me, and the piano that leaves me cold?” This question forms the heart of her explorations.

The New York piano voicer who had given Marlene her distinctive tone flies to Montana and is able to resurrect Marlene by treating her hammers with chemicals and “needling” them, only to have Marlene’s voice disappear again a dozen hours later. Knize learns about the various ways a piano can be tuned -- how tinkering with the hammers, the pads, the tautness of the strings alters the sound for good or ill. She’s given the option of returning the piano to the dealer for another one, but no other piano moves her the way Marlene did.

In asking her probing question, Knize also explores the nature of music and its ability to touch us. Fascinating insights emerge as she strives to understand the metaphysics of music: how vibrations influence us, how music heals us, how indulging our desire for beauty seems to feed our very soul. She examines such esoteric concepts as sympathetic frequencies -- for example, in a room filled with pianos, if you play just one note on one of them, the others will play that note too if their dampers are raised -- and what it all means to us, musicians and nonmusicians alike.

She goes to Germany to meet the people who built Marlene, to visit the forest where the wood of Marlene’s soundboard was harvested. At every step, the unexpected happens. To follow Knize on this crazy-quilt quest is to engage some of the deepest of life’s questions: not just why and how music moves us but why and how we respond to beauty, to the world, to each other -- and how a soul learns to thrive.

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Bernadette Murphy, author of “Zen and the Art of Knitting,” and co-author of “The Tao Gals’ Guide to Real Estate,” is completing a first novel, “Grace Notes.”

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