Why I Chose to Play Scarlatti on Bainbridge Island

One of the principle joys of coming back to my parents’ place on Bainbridge Island, a Manhattan-sized piece of land directly across from Seattle in the Puget Sound and reachable from the metropolis by a thirty-minute ferry ride, was playing my boyhood Steinway.  I’d inherited it from my first piano teacher, who died of cancer when I was eleven.

It was the piano on which I learned most of the Bach I know, including many of the organ works, with my father playing the pedal part an octave lower—duets for three hands. He had taught me on an upright piano how to read music and to use the proper fingering for my scales, before I got the “real” teacher whose Steinway came into our household when she died.

An upright piano doesn’t sound as good as a grand because the bass strings are shorter. But an upright does fit against a wall, and even in a corner.  A grand, however, can and should hold forth in the middle of the room. You can look around as you play, taking in the scenery: the humans inside or the landscape outside. I would sit at the ebony Steinway and survey my parents’ property like a 18th-century squire on his black horse: to my bass side were Douglas Firs and the morning light. In the evening the sunset over the Olympic Mountains would glimmer obliquely to my treble.

It was this Steinway at which I was sitting on a Sunday morning at about 8:30 am in the spring of 1980 when an explosion—perhaps a sonic boom?—rattled the picture windows next to the Steinway. Mt. St. Helens had finally erupted.

Returning home a at Christmas more than a decade ago I sat at the instrument while giant trees were felled on two sides of the six-acre property. I played late Brahms: elegiac, with a whiff of the apocalyptic. Bainbridge’s building boom was on. On the next visit the firs were gone. To the western side the view opened towards the Olympics Mountains.  To the east the morning become much brighter. But the developer drilled down 800 feet and couldn’t find water. No houses were built on the piece.

The Steinway stayed on Bainbridge as I continued my education, musical and otherwise. I fell in love with a friends’ piano, an antique grand built in 1897, the year Brahms died. These mighty instruments—you get more piano for less money, because they don’t have the all-conquering Steinway brand—are the very symbol of 19th-century domestic culture: the SUV, or even Rolls-Royce, of the pre-automotative bourgeoisie.

I sold the ebony boyhood Steinway from the 1940s and used the money to buy a Viennese rosewood concert grand circa 1875. But the Schweighofer—they were official piano builders to the Austrian emperors—turned out to be a junk car with a cracked block, this one holding tuning pins rather than pistons. The Austrian restorer disappeared behind one of those the ponderous Viennese apartment block facades like a Scranton scrap man slithering into the obscurity of twenty acres of rusting muscle cars. Back in Ithaca, New York where I now live the crippled European aristocrat of a piano glowers at me from under its shroud. When I look at it I feel like I’ve just walked into Joseph Roth’s Kapuziner Gruft —the Capuchins’ Crypt were the Habsburgs and their noble hangers-on are buried.

Back on Bainbridge the Steinway is gone and so is my father.  After he retired a few years ago he gathered up his tools in the basement and moved out.

The house he left is fed by a thirty-year-old well witched by the legendary Bainbridge diviner Happy Nishi, a Manazar internee, who repaid the kindness of his adopted country by finding lots of water for Islanders over his a long career. He was far into his eighties and officially retired, when my mother begged him to come out and work his magic after her first well, one of more than 300 feet, had collapsed after a few years of operation.

Happy prowled the property and eventually the hair raised up on the back of his hand as walked down a gentle incline leading to a half-acre wetland.  He’d found where the water was. Next he’d find out how deep. He pulled out his willow branch and it bounced up and down sixty-seven times, which puzzled those who’d followed him on his search. Finally, my father realized the old man’s unit of measure was the meter. Happy had been born in Japan and come to the U. S. in the 1920s, and his English was rudimentary.  Water is a universal language.
Going down the well drillers found nothing but clay, but lightened the impact of the rig’s blows after having reached 200 feet. Exactly at 219 feet—67 meters—the clear beautiful water flowed.

Even with this scene still vivid in my memory, I remain a skeptic. My views on the subject are those of the great physicist Neils Bohr who had a lucky horseshoe over the door to his study. He answered questions as to why a scientist would indulge in such superstition by responding that the thing brought good luck even to those who didn’t believe in it.

My mother’s well began to dry up this past spring and it’s now down to a trickle. Happy is gone and so is the water he found. It seems as if the aquifer has been tapped too many times. I don’t quote Auden’s line to my mother: “Thousands have lived without love / Not one without water.” In her golden years  she’s having to make do without either.

The house across the street is in foreclosure and empty, but too many others have got their straw down into the ground and are sucking hard. A battle in the Water Wars of the West will soon be fought on this island.

We flush the toilet with the dish water or do our business in the woods. We take showers at the island’s “aquatic center,” one corner of which is the small pool I learned to swim in, and which is now covered over and purified with ozone.

A private water company on the island has 1,000 feet deep wells but the pipe is still a long way off from my mother’s place. She could drill another well but there’s the prospect of finding as much water as the adjacent developer: none.

To get our mind off my mother’s problems, we take lots of walks through the second-growth forest that is being cleared for huge new houses. Above the deep water harbor of Port Blakely, once home to the largest saw mill in the world before all the old-growth trees were cut down a century-and-a-half ago, a “Hamptons-style” 5,000 square-foot cottage on five acres was for sale last year at $3,000,000. It now lists  for $1.4 but still hasn’t found a buyer.  That doesn’t bode well for my mother’s house, miniature by comparison, never mind that it has  formica countertops instead of granite.

Now there are lots of houses in this once dense forest we’d hike through and camp in as kids. Along the gently curving, pseudo-rural routes of suburbia, there’s water system and fire hydrants and green lawns even though there’s been little rain this year. Only a few tiny specks of snow can be picked out on the eastern face of the Olympic Mountains.

Other big, bad things are afoot in the jungle of my youth. The pasturage of nearby Wacky Nut horse farm, cleared out of the towering firs, also looks suspiciously robust. Wacky Nut is one of the Brainerds’ many initiatives. They’re newcomers to the island, having arrived, like so many others over the past decade and more, flush with high-tech millions.  Paul Brainerd developed PageMaker. Now he’s got his dream house—and one of the caretakers of his estate—on the point of Port Blakely looking over at Seattle and southeast to Mt. Rainier.  We used to clamber  through the salal and poison oak to clam and explore there, like the natives before us.

Concerns about the Amazon-style clear cut that made way for the “Positive Riding”  experience available at Wacky Nut can be quickly allayed by going to the website of the contractor, Fairbank Construction. Here we are assured that “20-acre equestrian center in the forest above Rockaway Beach, utilizes an on-site portable lumber mill to make ecological use of windfall trees and previously cleared timber. Barns and outbuilding are being made of wood taken directly from the [sensitive] property.”  So here’s an eloquent defense of clearcutting a northwest forest to make way for the super rich’s Old Kentucky Home. Consuming the mighty firs locally is deftly likened to growing your own lettuce in the backyard.  A rogue hurricane  fells the timber naturally, and then an excavator merely touches up on Mother Nature’s work.

Lest one raise any objections about the Brainerds’ good liberal sentiments and environmental credentials, they’ve endowed Islandwood a few miles down the road. It’s a 225-acre “outdoor learning center providing exceptional learning experiences that inspire lifelong environmental and community stewardship.” Back at Wacky Nut, however, the trees are gone, the flickers and winter wrens have fled, now able to admire from the few remaining verges of the lush forest the Brainerds’ sumptuous barns and the goofy, locally grown New Age Ranch Gate, a sort of I’m OK, You’re OK Coral.

So my mother and I return to the house with spirits hardly buoyed.  I go to the living room to an old upright parked against the wall. The instrument was bought by my mother for fifty dollars at the disbanding of the Bainbridge Odd Fellows Hall thirty years ago. Actually, the piano sounds pretty good, and anyway, it would be wrong to hold forth at the Steinway then later have to flush the toilet with a bucket of gray water. I sit down at the piano. The keyboard is placed so you can look out through a smaller window now at the shed with the holding tank for water from the ailing well. It’s too late for elegiac Brahms and Bach is too erudite. One needs to be distracted and delighted. What’s called for in this case is the commentary of the driest of
musical humorists: Scarlatti.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu










DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com