Julie’s Magic Knight
My friend Julie Gold learned to play piano on a British piano called a Knight. She started as a young kid with her Knight and would probably say that she is still learning from it (back then she also had a human teacher). That was in Philadelphia. Anyone who has moved to New York City knows you can’t always take your biggest instruments with you (my bass, the Jolly Green Giant (because of the colour of its case) still lives in the corner of my parents’ dining room). Julie lived here for seven years with only a more easily transportable electric piano with which to make her music, but on her thirtieth birthday, her parents sent her Knight from Philadelphia to her New York apartment. It was a slow and careful reunion on West 4th Street, because the piano had been on the moving truck for 24 hours and it was December. The movers advised her not to play it until the next day. So, she did everything else someone might do with a piano she loved, from polishing it to hugging it. Overnight, she looked down at it from her loft bed, eager to start making music with it. When finally she got to sit down at it, over the course of their first three hours working together in New York, she wrote the song “From A Distance,” which went on to be recorded by the likes of Bette Midler, The Byrds, and Michael Ball, and win the Song of the Year Grammy in 1991. Julie thinks of her Knight piano as magical, and has recently started inviting her songwriter friends to spend an hour with it and see what happens. On Monday, July 25th, 2016, at ten minutes to 5, it was my turn.
I’d known about her “Magic Knight” project for about a year, but I had been reluctant to participate. My primary reason was that I do not play piano, though I kind of know my way around one, and therefore thought the only way I could do the project would be wrong. I also don’t think of myself as a composer, one who writes music, though this is not based on my inability to come up with a tune so much as my inability to play the instruments most commonly associated with songwriting, the piano and the guitar. It’s irrational, but I am entitled to some irrational feelings. Beyond not thinking of myself as a composer, I have been earnestly seeking one out with whom to write musicals, which were my gateway drug into the whole idea of writing songs, and there are plenty of musical theatre scores written by one person, and there always have been, but I have tended to favour musicals with scores written by two people. Oh, and just about everyone else participating in this project is incredibly accomplished, and so I was a bit intimidated by the company I would be joining. For all of these reasons, and just not wanting to disappoint Julie by spending an hour with her piano and not getting anything at all out of it, I put off doing the project.
But I say of myself, even though it takes me a while, I always come to the right conclusions. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed worth whatever risk was involved. She kept telling me stories about who was at her piano, and I kept seeing entries on facebook. Then I attended the second “A Little Knight Music” concert at the Duplex in the West Village, where several of her friends performed the songs they had written, or at least started, while sitting with her piano. They were all very different and clever in their own ways. One of Julie’s guests (Julie performed some new songs as well) was Suzzy Roche, whose song was the most memorable to me, not just because I grew up listening to We Three Kings, the Christmas album she made with her sisters Terre and Maggie, but because it was about mice in New York City apartments, a subject I am so familiar with I created a YouTube channel devoted to it. Also, though he wasn’t performing that night, I sat across from a man who had had musicals that I had never heard of on Broadway, and we got to talking about that. It was a creative room, and I felt like I was somewhere between a visitor and a member. The next time I saw Julie, I committed to her project.
Then the floods came. Julie doesn’t want people to come to her piano with any specific things in mind to write, but in addition to my instinct being to have done the assignment before I’m supposed to have started it, I already do have a lot of things that I want to write. Not only was I trying to keep myself from deciding which pre-existing project to work on while at her Knight, I was swatting away new ideas that I thought would be sure things that I could accomplish while there, and therefore make a definite contribution to my friend’s project and not disappoint her. Well, I had to be anxious about something. Some of them were good ideas, some I only thought of because I saw or heard something similar, and figured I’d imitate it. I toyed with the idea of writing a hip-hop or patter tune so that the music part, the “composed” part, would be less prominent and I could more easily perform it on my own. I had more ideas running through my head than ever before, right up to the moment she closed the door of her apartment and left me alone with her piano, taking precautions to make sure no one knocked on the door and the phone didn’t ring.
I won’t tell you what happened during that hour, other than that there was a huge storm, which most readers already know there was at that time on that day. Oh, the storm. I was the only one who got a storm during my session, according to Julie. And her windows provided a great view of it, too. I saw a lot of lighting bolts, and blankets of rain. Before I was left alone, Julie took some pictures, of the two of us and of me with the piano, and asked me a question, filming my answer on her phone. Then it was just me, my notepad and pencil, her two cats, her Grammy, and her piano. For an hour. When she came back, she asked me another question, which I again answered for her phone, and we took some more pictures, and I got a keepsake for the occasion. Then we had to decide whether or not it was a good idea for me to leave, because the rain was still coming down very hard outside, and I didn’t have a coat or even an effective hat. She gave me a trash bag to wear, because I had someone waiting for me a few blocks away, and I couldn’t keep her waiting too long.
Again, I won’t tell you what I got out of it, that’s what “A Little Knight Music” is for, but I will tell you that it made perfect sense to me, what happened. It needs to be finished, for which I will enlist the help of someone who plays one of those songwriting instruments, but I hope to perform it in the company of other “Magic Knight” participants. I don’t think I believe in magic the same way Julie does, which is not to say she’s wrong, but I do think there’s something to magical thinking, that if you believe a certain situation will bring about a certain outcome, it increases the likelihood at least. For me, Julie’s piano is definitely a work of art, but not necessarily a talisman. Her project, on the other hand, the concept of sitting alone in a creative space, with an instrument that has been used by others before you to create art, for a set amount of time, with nothing else on your mind, that I really dig. That is magical to me. And it was exciting, too, not just because of the raging storm.