Notes on the Inner Life of Piano

by Eliot Cardinaux

In 2016 I was living in Boston after graduating New England Conservatory. The world I believed I belonged to was like American English, in that it only accounted for that within earshot, and although I listened, I could never hear the sound of bells that rang outside its walls – that which was too far to hear unless there was a breeze. Hence, I felt guarded against all that was in my periphery. And so I naturally knew to become just that: the sidelong glance of a thief, a strand of poetry abandoned by a world leader after it became too much to wrestle with. I hid like the outline of writing on the layer of paper underneath the page that is torn off the pad. All it would take was to rub the flat end of a pencil across my spirit to reveal me. Nonetheless, I focused my intention like the eye-patch of a horse that is all but blind, and I waited for silence: a particular silence, accompanied by the sound that is left in one’s ears as someone hangs up the phone having been the bearer of bad news.


A picture that hung on the wall of my office at the BSO

During that time I found work as a switchboard operator at the Boston Symphony. This transitory phase would come to make up the rest of my life, I believed at the time; in my thoughts I was aware, subtly, of how I would feel then, catching up to it like a man to his mule that has led him astray, after running away to some unexpected destination.

Imagination is like that: a mask over the future. It gives form to that which we cannot understand because it attaches an image to what is hidden from view. Thus the future as an entity has the appearance of illusion, but is really unknowable, however self-defeating it might seem to a prophet or a seer.

Tragedy and comedy are also like this. They peer headlong, one darkly, one lightly, into the pitch dark of reality, flanking Narcissus at the edge, the one shading him from the sun, the other kneeling in his shadow. They are forces which guide us over the abyss; often when we think we’re gliding, we’re already on our way down.


On the job I would sneak in hours of writing while waiting for calls to come in. Women from adjoining offices would gather in the hall, chatting sharply, like birds who feel threatened in their own territory. In this way, from where I sat, writing secretly to myself, I had an audience. I watched on a T.V. screen during those times, the orchestra rehearsing for a concert, late in the evening. The music came in softly through the T.V. speakers, muffled – in the background – like noise on a transistor radio. In that way too, I was an audience, the musicians as unaware of me as a flock of sheep of a nearby predator’s intentions as it creeps through the undergrowth. Yet, somehow I was touched by another’s presence in a similarly indirect way, in this case Bach, a composer who had died in the 1700s. I thought of the orchestra, who in its own disparate way was the undetected audience of the conductor as he waved his baton. I answered each call in the same way; while the strings swelled, the woodwinds moved stoically forward through time, emitting the sigh of an era.


Working the switchboard at Symphony Hall was like being privy to the underground network of tunnels that belongs to a colony of moles. As the orchestra warmed up, I could hear each musician playing a different part of the piece they were about to rehearse. It sounded like a piece by William Burroughs, a beat fiction author of the 1950s, who cut up texts and pieced them back together, or if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had written an overture, chopped up, its parts stitched together at random. I thought of the myriad people on the end of the line as each call was put through to a different extension. I imagined them all talking at once, like a lawless, anarchic entity of commerce, taking stock over its future. I knew, though, how efficient a machine this organization was, and could therefore envision a tacit, discerning order of intelligence, concealed as a listener among the voices of a hundred workers chattering in cacophonic unity.


I ran into the violist and educator Tanya Kalmanovitch one day during my lunch break. We sat and talked over curry and vermicelli about the decaying rights of artists within the recording industry. She was in the midst of organizing a workshop in musicians’ activism with the guitarist Marc Ribot. Tanya always speaks highly about these issues, as though there were an actual solution, a refreshing alternative to the usual frustrated rants I would find myself involved in. She explained how legislation that would protect artists from music-streaming services, such as Spotify, YouTube, and Pandora, had never been put in place like it had been for music in Hollywood and T.V. She told me about how musicians’ unions would never penalize an artist for working for free, and on the contrary, could teach musicians how to write off their dues on a tax return, and how musicians in the 21stCentury had many more expenses, and much fewer means of income than only a few decades before. She also explained to me how members of a union could help each other organize in order to lobby on behalf of the musical community to help push new legislation, putting pressure on organizations that could help.

After my shift I would walk over to the Conservatory and look for a piano to practice on. For the first two weeks of this routine, I would sneak into one of the smaller halls to play on a ten-foot grand. This piano was so perfect that I didn’t like playing on it as I would a regular instrument. I came to know it not by its touch, or the weight and action of its keys, but by the many resonant spaces held inside it. The human mind is like this too. Whereas intelligence outwardly exhibited is quantifiable, the inner life of a human being is not, though it’s often tangible through the opaque surface of their identity, like under the lid of a piano. Once when I walked in, the piano sat in the middle of the hall, surrounded by chairs, each one with a music stand in front of it, most likely set up for rehearsal later in the evening. I imagined a group of spectral musicians, accompanying the piano with its lid closed as it sat in silence in the dark, a Concerto for No Orchestra. This later became the title of a piece of mine, from a cassette I released only twenty copies of, entitled March, originally titled The Inner Life of Piano.