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If you are a famous, best-selling writer and influential editor who’s just moved to Los Angeles to be the Visionary in Residence of a renowned design school (Art Center), and you’re renting a historic house (a 1946 Rudolf Schindler) owned by your famous best-selling author friend (Susan Orlean), and you have a Peabody Award–winning radio show, what worlds are left to conquer?
Your family. That deep, bottomless well of psychodrama. Specifically, your older brother David, who shot you in the leg with a BB gun when you were a kid.
And so, on a recent brilliant afternoon, you travel to a cozy, aromatherapy candle–scented home in Mar Vista, where you will meet your brother David Andersen, and tape a segment of your radio show, Studio 360 With Kurt Andersen.
David won’t just be talking about the myriad abuses he visited upon the adolescent Kurt but about his own grown-up craft. David is an extraordinary piano tuner.
“You look skinny, dude,” David says, when his brother arrives.
“Would that it were true,” Kurt says. “I’ve gained weight since I’ve been in Los Angeles.”
The eight weeks he’s been here make it the longest he’s been anywhere but New York since he graduated from college. He’s been having dinner out with people every week.
“No, you look good. You look healthy.”
“It’s the sun,” Kurt says, as they look each other over.
The soundman attaches each of the brothers’ microphones on their left ears.
“Why is it on the left?” asks David, spreading out comfortably on the sofa. “To pick up the secret dark-shadow shit?”
Kurt admonishes his brother to turn off his cell phone, then a few minutes later his own cell rings.
“Physician heal thyself, bitch,” David says. Then, to no one in particular, adds, “These elite Eastern snobs, man, who put classical music on their machines.”
Each topic David raises could spawn its own separate radio program. Like the fact that Mozart played his pieces in a different ear from the one we in the modern day hear, a phenomenon known as temperament, which gets at the alignment between music and science. Or the fact that the rim of the piano is the part that makes it a piano. It is layer upon layer of varnished hardwood, bent into sinuous arcs.
“Then they send it off to forget for six months,” says David, rather poetically. “It forgets it was a tree and remembers it’s a piano.”
Or the reason why Steinways are the 800-pound gorillas in the room of pianos — because artists became unofficial field reps for them over the years. Piano manufacturers, David explains, “befriend the artist, money follows the artist, acclaim follows the artist,” an effect he calls the “psychoacoustic illusion.”
The actual hulking gorilla of an instrument taking up significant real estate in the living room is David’s gleaming black $140,000 Steingraeber & Söhne. The piano is made in a castle in Bavaria. The brothers come up with an analogy for it: Steingraebers are to Steinways as Lamborghinis are to Mercedeses. It is the only manufactured piano David’s worked on as a rebuilder that has ever scared him.
“Stand over here,” he instructs, indicating the inward curve of the piano’s belly. Bass rumbles up from inside the beast’s gut. The strings vibrate like a colony of bees.
David is a strict aural tuner, meaning he doesn’t use an electronic tuning device. His body is the tuning device, which prompts a question from Kurt: Will robots ever be able to do what he does?
“Robots can’t do my job yet. It’s coming. Maybe. This is a multitrillion-dollar package, this body we have, which is capable of picking up the custom inharmonicities that no machine will ever be able to pick up.”
In his radio interview, Kurt goes after both the how and the why. In David’s case, the details of how reveal the why.
“The hammers are a magic thing,” he says. “They’re the most worked-on felt in the world, bent and held and compressed. Each hammer has this little insane pearl of compressed energy at the core of the hammer.” He clenches his fists. His face contorts. What appeals to him about Steingraebers is their darkness, their big huge sound.
Kurt starts to ask about cheap pianos. “We call them PSOs,” David interrupts, “or, Piano Shaped Objects.”
“Uh hmmm,” Kurt murmurs in a faraway tone, the cup of coffee sweetened with maple syrup balanced on his lap, forgotten.
Past Studio 360s have included visits with Annie Leibovitz, Fela Kuti and Spike Lee, but the show has not been afraid to veer toward stuff like Sweden’s Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator and Chicano rock bands. The program’s tag line is: “Get inside the creative mind.” The show is essentially a forum for Kurt to air his curiosities in a weekly one-hour format.