On narrow bridges and tree-lined ways my three fellow pianos and I rumbled towards the Hamburg port in the black interior of a cartage lorry. Our shining Zimmerman brass plates now affixed above the black and white keys. And we were proud of our purpose. And curious of the journey. Where to? Some distance from the Austrian border where we had been carefully assembled; surely. And so it came to be.
I was offloaded at the mouth of the Grey River in New Zealand in July 1920. The cold wind from the Tasman Sea swept the wharf labourers from side to side but I was safe. Slid onto a covered wagon drawn by two horses, I soon found myself positioned against the interior wall of Bunny and Babs Chunn’s house in Murray Street, Greymouth. I was marvelled at by Babs. She looked at me from the dining room table. Her soft hands rested on the polished oak in anticipation of touching me. She had been waiting for me, I suspect. Bunny took little notice. He was always going somewhere. I soon learned he was either picking up wads of currency from gambling drinkers in local taverns who had lost on the horses or running from the police. When he came up Chunn’s Hill (the townsfolk called Murray Street Chunn’s Hill) with pocketfuls of five-pound notes he pranced around in front of me. But his footsteps were the March of Halfpennies and Babs kept out of his way.
When he was gone from their home, Babs would sit on the spiralling piano stool that had been there when I arrived. And she would play me and absorb the sound and detail of my voice. She was tentative at first. It had been some time since she had played in the taverns of Cork. But when her lithe, slender fingers took control, it was magical. The Girl With the Flaxen Hair by Debussy was her favourite. Lyrical melodies falling and climbing. Notes that shower out like soft sparks from the early embers of a winter fire. But she never sang. In fact, in all those years – she not only never sang, she almost never spoke. When she finished her playing she would stand up and look at me. The room returned to its silent, mournful way. The recent footsteps of that room merged into footprints of time passing.
In 1930 their son, Jerry, took piano lessons. He sat in front of me with a beautiful look of concentration. The look a brilliant person has when they are concentrating on looking concentrated. As his dowdy, forlorn teacher mapped out a polonaise, Jerry would be rolling in his mind through recent favourite poems of his. Probably Keats. Maybe Hilaire Belloc. G. K. Chesterton certainly. At times Miss Swelter would regain his attention and forge a few lines on the piano from him. His face – so close to me – looked like it was slowly dying. But then Keats was always at hand.
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
Jerry was never taught songs like the ones Babs sang to herself over kettles and rolling pins. Jerry had never heard her play the piano. She sang sweetly of home. Far, far away in Ireland. Jerry was a man of letters as he knew how to read and find life beneath the words. His fertile imagination turned those words from his favourite English writers into worlds of perfect escape. It seemed to me he knew the Core Of Sadness in that room and he deftly swept it aside with poetry.
In time, I fell from grace. I gathered dust. It was WWII and Babs had stopped playing me altogether. Jerry was at boarding school. A huge repetition rolled into the house unless the phone rang and Babs cried out and wept and wept as another of her Greymouth friends learned of a lost son. If only I could play myself. I had many many songs of grief to pronounce.
It was in 1958 that I was moved. The wall, Chunn’s Hill and the West Coast drifted away from me. No-one played me for the last time. I had been there for 38 years. Where was I going?
Jerry, his wife Von and their two young sons Michael and Geoffrey were living in Otahuhu, South Auckland. I rolled down their gravel drive between lines of grapefruit trees. A glance to the left – an orchard! It was February and the fallen fruit perfumed the air.
I was placed against the wall in the playroom. In 1963 a black and white television turned up and was placed about 10 feet away. I won that stand-off. No-one seemed to want to watch the travails of Clutch Cargo or Diver Dan.
By 1964 Michael was having piano lessons. Once again I sat in a bored patience as “Fur Elise” rolled along in its interminable way. Then one day Michael came in with Yvonne and ran to me. He sat down on the piano stool and took “Fur Elise” off the holder and replaced it with one titled “Love Me Do”. The look on his face! In deep concentrated advances – from note to note; chord to chord. Over and over. The song became reality. After twenty minutes he played it through to the end without a stop. He stopped and took the sheet music off the holder. He closed it and sat staring at the photo on the front cover. Yvonne moved close to him and peered over his shoulder. He hadn’t realised she was still there.
“The Beatles” he said. “I can play it all”.
“Yes. She said. “I’ve been hearing you work it out. Play it again”.
And he did. And as he finished he looked up at her.
In 1968 I was the life and soul of the playroom. Michael had a pile of Beatles’ sheet music. And then one day he and Geoffrey sat on the cane chairs and made the decision to record an album. Michael had been given an acoustic guitar for his birthday. Geoffrey had a drum. Jerry and Yvonne had seen the light and bought a reek-to-reel tape recorder. They borrowed another from family friends: the Zambuckas. The boys now had a recording studio. And I was in it. I was playing my part as winter nights rolled in from the Manukau Harbour and flocks of herons waved at us as they swept overhead, heading to the east as they did every winter from the edge of Mount Richmond.
These two boys cajoled and weaved naïve melodies and random chord structures. Lyrics about things they knew nothing about. A vivid collection as of a child’s first steps. And one day in late November they came running in with a shellac album that they had had pressed at Stebbing Studios. It went on the HMV gramophone and they played it: sitting in an intense silence. I had one solo performance. A track called Jazzy Chang. You want to hear it? Here you go. https://soundcloud.com/mike-chunn/jazzy-chang
From then I had decades of songs. Many players sat on that same old stool and weaved their magic on my keys. Eddie Rayner, Tim Finn, Graeme Gash, Stephen Bell-Booth, Phil Judd, Jordan Luck, Paul Scott, Neil Finn, Nikko Chunn, Dave Dobbyn, Barney Chunn, Jeffrey Grice, Johnny Chunn, Annah Mac, Georgia Chunn, Brigid Chunn and many more. From “Under The Wheel” to “Julia”. From “I’ll Say Goodbye” to “Land of Broken Dreams”. My Zimmerman brass plate quietly faded and waned but my strings sang like a flock of birds in a kaleidoscopic whirl. I went from Otahuhu to Parnell Road, Grafton to Ellerslie and back to Parnell Road. And then to Bethell’s Beach. Where I am right now.
I spend days and days here alone. Far below, beachcombers, stray dogs and penguins tilt and slope in the trade winds from the southwest. Dolphins surge from the dark green sea and find no-one to play with. It’s all a matter for someone else. I am up on the ridge in the shadow of the trees….Under the one hundred year old ceiling.
On my lid rest Cat Stevens, Kinks, Beatles, Kermit The Frog, America, Nature’s Best, Steely Dan and other songbooks. My strings are slowly rusting in the sea air that sneaks in through the many cracks in the floor and the time-honoured joinery. And I wait patiently.
In 2013 Michael came in with his bag of Play It Strange things-to-do. He walks softly around. Never speaks to himself. Doesn’t whistle or hum. Always makes a coffee. Immediately. He laid his homework out on the Burlington Bertie’s formica top table ready for his attention and conclusion. That’s okay. I am a patient piano. Piano’s are made to be patient.
He opened his bag, took out two pages of a musical score and placed them on my holder. As a class A German piano I know intuitively all European works composed before my manufacture. And these two pages were very familiar. Page 8 and 9 from the two-piano score of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto in Cmin. I knew what this meant. I’d been waiting for it to happen. Though I didn’t think it would take so long.
In 1973 as I sat in Michael and Geoffrey’s bedroom at 469 Parnell Road I heard Tim and Michael put a recording of this concerto on the family stereo in the lounge. The pianist was by Sviatoslav Richter. It had been unearthed from a boxed set of classical works that Jerry had bought from Reader’s Digest. The whole concerto played out at a loud volume. They were the only ones in the house. Then Michael went to the turntable and played one section of it again. He played it four times. It starts 2’ and 30” in. They never spoke. They were ripped.
And there forty years later the very same section rested on my holder. Michael sat and stared at it.
He eased out the treble line. Climbing from the G. Note by note climbing. And then tumbling back down again with skips. He played it eight times. Then he played out the bass line. It climbed and rolled back down too. No skips. After about twenty minutes he had that in the can. Onto the next section. It was tricky. A furrowed brow emerged. The mistakes held him pinned to the spot. Holding. The notes hang in the air. Melodies so familiar to him.
And then he pauses – starts again. Very very slowly. He listens intently to each note. He stares at the score. He has one last chord to play and he does it slowly and with a deep, peaceful resolution. And his hands fall from the keys as he weeps with the joy of it. Complete.
A few weeks ago Michael sat on the piano stool and gazed ahead. Some minutes went by. He hadn’t shaved for a few days. Unkempt. He wore a Yellow Submarine t-shirt in a dark blue worn and weathered cotton. Images of Blue Meanies on it. I knew about them. Then his hands on the keys. He mapped a chord sequence. He was getting it wrong. In the end he got it right. And then a melody. I knew it. He’s played the track many times on his stereo. “Where Fairburn Walked” by Ross Mullins. Sung by Caitlin Smith. Mesmerising. It has a vivid finale and I remember thinking once as he sat alone listening to the track; ‘Ah. He wants to go like that.’ And I thought – I should be there too.
‘When my journey’s over, I will ask you
to bury me.
On the slopes of that gentle, grassy mountain
That looks out to the sea.
Bury me in a black piano
Under a macrocarpa tree.
Just toss my music to the wind
And throw away the key.’