Dropped Pianos

It was our first last finals week, and we were manic with sleeplessness and sunlight after a turgid Pittsburgh winter. Without lectures or labs, the days collapsed into one another; looming deadlines and the impending collapse of our bodies were the only measurements of time. We stayed up to watch the sunrise. We ran to 9 am finals only to fall asleep at noon. At some point I returned to the dorm from either studying for my calc final or finishing an essay on The Master and the Margarita. My floormates were playing Smash Bros. in someone’s room and, even though one of them was spamming Meta Knight’s cross-B move, they were all giggly with stress and lack of sleep and freedom and excitement of what they had done while I was away. They had blown up water balloons and pelted the ground from our dorm roof. I smiled. I said that sounds like fun but secretly thought it was silly and primal and I wish I had been there. My life that year had been a catalog of absences: no guest lists at parties, no late-night anime marathons, no classrooms or clubs or bedrooms. Everywhere around me people created the stories they would bring home to their families; the only stories I bring back were theirs.

That year I lived in an all-male dorm, a wilderness where men roamed the halls in only plastic sandals and boxer shorts. I spent the week before the semester learning how to live there: my neighbors’ names and interests and what version of me they would accept as one of their own. I ate meals with them, and we developed inside jokes that could be dragged out every few months for laughs. I belonged among them tenuously. But I didn’t trust this. I was never good at getting men to like me in the way I wanted them to. Even after I started fucking them, men were strange beasts I could never fully trust.

As I saw friendships deepen around me, webs of conversations and shared interests woven between nodes that did not include me, I focused less on being liked and more on being perceived as useful. I would listen to the music dripping out of my hallmates’ rooms and search for a section of song that I was familiar with—the quiet unfurling of a bassline or a synth progression that reminded me of how I would imagine a  late-night drive twenty years in the future—and then name it. Or if not name outright, at least identify the album or artist that song belonged to and then list all the songs it wasn’t, which almost without fail would leave me with the song in question. Then I would poke my head into the dorm playing the music and ask the men within, “Oh, is that ‘Silver Cruiser’ by Röyksopp?” knowing full well it was “Silver Cruiser” by Röyksopp. This would surprise people, sometimes. And if I could surprise them and insert myself in their proximity often enough, maybe they would overlook the fact that I often said nothing, incapable of jointly processing and contributing to a conversation that did not revolve around music. Either my ideas refused to form into words, or the words that left my mouth made me feel exposed and embarrassed by my desperation for connection.

In my senior year of high school, a friend told me I would find other people like me at college, and I thought she meant people whose feelings embraced the world like a corset. I latched on to this as if it were a promise. After a month of not finding such people, I began to look elsewhere. It made sense to join the campus radio station, where there may be other people who not only depended upon music in the same way that I did, but felt the way I did, too.

My show was 10 to midnight on Thursdays, and by then the station was almost always empty. I would stand in the DJ booth with the monitor volume cranked as high as I could bear, the air shivering with noise around me. I received a few call-in requests but nothing consistent enough to signal that I had any regular listeners. I was a terrible DJ, playing songs with no sense of narrative or coherence, simply hoping that there would be somebody listening who liked the same music I did, who would hear an unfamiliar song that struck them and then wait until I announced its title (which I did in batches of three, almost always). They would hear themselves so strongly in the music I chose that they would even sit through the required PSAs and local event announcements I had to recite, and when they heard my sign-off, they would know that somebody out there understood them.

Every hour I was required to play three songs from our new music shelf, and this is how, one night, I found Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972, shelved with the other experimental albums. I often stayed away from that difficult music, constellations of drones and noises sustained by the trust between listener and artist. But it had a lengthy, typed review from another station member that made the music seem accessible, enjoyable even, and I thought maybe this would be the moment I could break into a new genre, open a whole new world of artists to consume and catalog and recommend.

What struck me most about the review lay in the middle: “The digital and analog elements blend seamlessly… throughout the record to create a haunting atmosphere that sounds as time being deconstructed. Apparently, the concept behind this album is music threatened by technology in a world of digital garbage.” The concept felt, at the very least, understandable. Even if I didn’t like it, I could doublespeak my way into appreciating its artistry. The reviewer recommended a three-song suite, “In the Fog (I-III),” so I played all three songs.

It was music that demanded volume. I imagined I could breathe in the sounds—the sustained notes of the organ, the digital noise peppered throughout like grit thrown through a wind tunnel—as they poured through the monitors around me. I understood why the reviewer recommended the whole suite: I could identify the bounds between each movement only because I watched the tracks change. By the final moments of “In the Fog,” I had already decided my feelings about it: I liked it fine enough. But this review had promised something like ascension, as if my understanding of the possibilities of music would be changed forever by listening. I still believed that promise, though. I was sure the issue was my own; I didn’t know or feel or listen enough to Hecker’s music to understand just how correct these words were. I wanted to understand and prove to other people that I understood, and I thought the best way to do so would be to increase my exposure not just to his music but to the way other people listened to and talked about it, how Tim Hecker talked about his own music.

In the following months, I learned that Ravedeath, 1972 was the sixth album he produced under his own name—by its release in 2011, he was already well-regarded by fans of ambient music and noise music. The songs on the album were originally recorded off a church organ in Reykjavik. He warped those recordings in the studio with composer-producer Ben Frost, drawing out the contrast between the organic music and digital noise. It was received well critically as both sound and statement.

None of this helped me connect with the songs themselves, but I didn’t mind this failure as strongly as I imagined I would. I knew what words I should use, and I already knew I was supposed to like it. It was soft enough that I could listen to it and not recoil; I could put on my headphones and sink into it. Those first few seconds after listening to the album front-to-back felt like taking in the first breaths of air after being underwater. This music kept me company while I sat by myself in the station lobby matching orphaned CDs with their cracked, vacant cases because I had nothing better to do on a Friday night. Hecker’s music held the most meaning for me when I paid barely any attention to it, when I was using it as background music for homework or a bus ride. It cast even the most tedious acts in a gauzy filter, and sometimes the sounds and the acts aligned in such a way that I understood, if not the sounds themselves, then their effect—tracing the protean shape of my own life, fumbling through a process I was convinced would lead me to friendship.

Ravedeath, 1972’s cover, a sepia-toned photo of a group of young men pushing a piano off a building, was taken from the first piano drop at MIT, a tradition in which students who lived in the Baker Hall dormitory push a piano off the roof. In an interview with Pitchfork, Hecker said that he “licensed [the photo] from the MIT museum, printed it out, threw it up on the wall in my studio, and took a few photos of it with a film camera. Then I went to the crappy pharmacy and got them developed.” Like the album itself, the cover is a study in deterioration.

The MIT Museum’s website lays out the essential facts: The first piano drop was in 1972. The dropped piano was created from the non-functional debris left over after “one of the dorm residents bought two junk pianos and built one good one from the parts.” The alumni stories the organization chose to highlight insist that this destruction has always been, in fact, an affirmation of love.

This narrative is snarled, however, by the comments left on the site by alumni from over a twenty-year span. In reminiscing over their experiences with the piano drops, some of these alumni contradict the museum label: Was the first drop in 1972 or, as multiple commenters insisted, 1973? Was the practice a unique cultural tradition or antithetical to the idea of the arts, a second-rate hack? The assertion that intrigued me most, though, was by someone claiming to be a student in Baker Hall during the year of the first drop:

“I had that piano in my room on loan from its owner. Even though a few keys were broken and it certainly was not pretty, I was quite happy teaching myself to play simple songs on it…I repeatedly offered to buy it, but its last owner was determined to donate it to be dropped instead.”

If accurate, this memory re-contextualizes the events of that first drop, and what the tradition commemorates. Even though the drop is discussed as an event that built community and boosted morale, this story would also mean the drop was a denial of the piano’s core function. If it was perceived to be more useful destroyed than played, where does that leave someone who still seeks value in the original work? It is difficult not to feel empathy for this student who simply wanted to play and love the functional music of an ugly piano.

Even if it’s incorrect, though, his story is still worth considering as a testament to how time deteriorates memory. In reading his comment, I consider my own college frustrations, the exclusions I perceived to be intentional that may have simply been oversights. Or the memories, like the finals-week water balloons, that may have happened differently or never at all and are just collages of emotions and half-remembered words. I spent my freshman year among men when there was little I was more afraid of than men, resentful of my failure to feel at home among them, among my feeling for them; wouldn’t it make sense for the memories I constructed to reflect that mess of self-loathing?

When I think of my freshman year, what I remember is an overwhelming loneliness, but there must have been more. There must have been moments of joy and laughter and hope, because when I returned to Pittsburgh for my sophomore year, it was to live with many of the same men I lived with the previous year. I remember thinking that when I returned for the fall I would still feel lonely, but moving into our new apartments felt like a long-awaited reunion. I had somehow become part of a group of friends, people who ate together and did work together and went to parties together. I didn’t know how it happened or why—if I had, in searching for the words and actions that would earn their friendship or an intimacy that felt like the friendships I had spent my whole childhood cultivating, overlooked the friendships I had unknowingly enacted.

Of Uncles

What have I offered the uncles I’ve sought out, and how will I know whether I’ve held up my end of the bargain?

Smalltown Boy

I’ve been told that to understand my feelings, I must first let myself feel them.

Thy God Loki

If Loki’s worth is inherent, then perhaps ours is, too.