Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey

( 7 )


Now available in paperback, the critically acclaimed, “lyrical, analytical, yet deeply affecting” (The Washington Post) memoir about one woman’s obsessive search for the perfect piano— and about finding and pursu- ing passion at any age.

The daughter of a pro- fessional musician, Perri Knize was raised in a home saturated in classical music, but it wasn’t until adult- hood that she returned to the one instrument that mesmer- ized her most: the piano. When, in her forties, Perri ...

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Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey

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Now available in paperback, the critically acclaimed, “lyrical, analytical, yet deeply affecting” (The Washington Post) memoir about one woman’s obsessive search for the perfect piano— and about finding and pursu- ing passion at any age.

The daughter of a pro- fessional musician, Perri Knize was raised in a home saturated in classical music, but it wasn’t until adult- hood that she returned to the one instrument that mesmer- ized her most: the piano. When, in her forties, Perri decides to buy a piano of her own, she begins by searching for a modestly priced upright, but falls madly, illogically, in love with a rare German grand she discovers in a New York showroom. After a long dalliance, Knize refinances her house to purchase her piano and has the instru- ment shipped to Montana. But when it arrives, the magical sound that enthralled her is gone, and the tone is dead and dull. One piano tuner after another arrives to fix it, but no one can.

Knize sets out on an epic journey to restore the instru- ment to its rightful sound and to understand its elusive power. This quest leads her into an international subculture of piano aficionados, all intrigu- ing and eccentric characters— concert artists, dealers, tech- nicians, composers, designers, and builders—whose lives have been transformed by the spell of a piano. She even hikes into the Austrian Alps to learn how the special trees used to build her piano are grown and harvested.

Beautifully composed, passionately told, Grand Obsession is itself a musical masterpiece— and will resonate with anyone who has ever expe- rienced deeply passionate desire.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Knize...explores the nature of music and its ability to touch us."

-- The Los Angeles Times

"...a memoir about passion and ephemerality with lasting elegance and grace."

-- Washington Post

"Reading this book, you want to go out...and learn the piano, or at least visit a shop and stroke one."

-- The New York Times Book Review

"For me, Grand Obsession was intimately powerful: It changed the way I look at the world."

-- The Missoula Independent

"[Written] in a wonderfully evocative, lushly romantic lovers will resonate to...[Knize's]...pursuit of a gorgeous sound."

-- Publishers Weekly

"A well-written, heartfelt, classy paean to a singular instrument."

-- Kirkus Reviews

"I was hooked from the first page....this book travels beyond the sphere of mere music."

-- The Buffalo News

"Knize has crafted a poetic tribute to the piano...Warmly recommended for all collections."

-- Library Journal

Emma Brockes
In the best tradition of the memoir, Perri Knize's Grand Obsession starts as a simple shopping expedition and ends in total existential collapse. It recounts the author's increasingly feverish addiction to the piano—first to buying one, then to getting the right sound out of it. It's a mark of her deftness that despite the esoteric subject matter, it reads at the pace of a mystery and the pitch of a love story. It is no small feat getting the reader to care about a problem that turns on words like "flanges" and "hammerless shanks," but Knize succeeds; by the end of the story, when Knize is told she "fell in love with an illusion," it has the weight of tragedy.
—The New York Times
Eugenia Zukerman
Knize's passion for her piano is intense, and if it seems excessive, she nonetheless hooks you into her obsession with writing that is lucid yet lyrical, analytical yet deeply affecting. From the opening of her "prelude," you know you're in the hands of an observant naturalist with an artist's sensibility…Along with its moving personal narrative, Grand Obsession offers a comprehensive lesson in piano making, piano tuning, piano delivery, piano everything, and it's all fascinating.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Embarking on piano lessons in middle age, environmental journalist Knize sets out on an ancillary quest to find the perfect piano on a limited budget. She scours North America's piano outlets, immerses herself in the colorful online subculture of piano aficionados and grows fluent in the language of keyboard connoisseurship ("a thin, shrill, brittle treble," she sniffs at a Steinway). Then she falls in love with "Marlene," a Grotrian-Steinweg grand with the "sultry and seductive" tone of Dietrich herself; she's so smitten that she mortgages her house to buy it. Then disaster strikes: when shipped from the New York showroom to her Montana home, the piano sounds "weird and echoey," and its glorious treble is dead. Desperate to restore Marlene's voice, Knize mobilizes an army of eccentric piano technicians (these lowly craftsmen emerge as wild-eyed artists in their own right), delves into the subtle intricacies that influence a piano's sound and ponders the haunting evanescence of music. Sometimes the mysticism-music " 'is a way of exiting the petty self and entering the Over-soul... [i]t's about existing at a certain vibration' "-gets thick enough to cut with a knife. But Knize writes in a wonderfully evocative, lushly romantic style, and music lovers will resonate to her mad pursuit of a gorgeous sound. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Environmental policy reporter Knize has crafted a poetic tribute to the piano of her dreams, a 2000 Grotrian-Steinweg she nicknames Marlene after chanteuse and actress Dietrich. The book details her travails as she takes up piano, her two-year search for an instrument that speaks to her, and the various piano stores, warehouses, and rebuilding workshops she visits along the way. We rejoice with Knize upon her discovery of Marlene and sympathize when the instrument she loved in New York changes on its trip through blizzards to Montana where she makes her home. Characters she meets introduce her to anthroposophy and Sufism, along with technical physics terminology about tuning and voicing as they attempt to restore her piano to what it was when she first played it; she even travels to the Grotrian factory in Germany and to Austrian spruce woods (where certain piano parts are derived) to gain insight. Narrated in a friendly way and reminiscent of portions of Noah Adams's Piano Lessonsand James Barron's Piano, Knize's book is warmly recommended for all collections.
—Barry Zaslow

Kirkus Reviews
Sincere, focused memoir chronicles the author's quest to plumb her obsession with a particular piano. An environmental-policy reporter and daughter of a professional clarinetist, Knize, at age 43, had the epiphany that she should resurrect her childhood dream of becoming a pianist. After beginning lessons and overcoming stage fright, she embarked on a hunt for a piano of her own, given immediacy here by her use of the present tense. The Yamahas sound too bright, the Bluthners too saccharine, the Astin-Weights too booming. The transcendent experience she seeks seems out of reach until she encounters her soul mate at Beethoven Pianos in Manhattan. There, a Grotrian Cabinet grand has a complex, sultry sound that leads Knize to christen the instrument Marlene (as in Dietrich). The author makes Marlene's delivery to Missoula, Mont., sound like a virgin being disrobed, a conceit that plays into her extended metaphor of the pianist/piano relationship being like a marriage. The honeymoon ends when Marlene's treble dies, a difficulty that a series of technicians attempt to solve through tuning, replacing hammers and voicing (regulating the tone). Desperate to heal Marlene and still fascinated by the emotional connection she feels with the piano, Knize travels to New York to see the high-strung, brilliant technician who voiced Marlene. Armed with literature about the healing power of music and inspired by a teacher's comment that Marlene's vibrational energy is a combination of everyone who worked on her, the author travels to Germany and Austria to meet kindred spirits at the piano factory where Marlene was constructed and the forest where her wood was cut. Articulating precisely the way musicmakes us feel may be nearly impossible, but Knize makes a commendable attempt, combining synesthetic flourishes of language with a journalistic attack on the experience. A well-written, heartfelt, classy paean to a singular instrument.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743276399
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 6/2/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 525,340
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Perri Knize is an award-winning environmental policy reporter whose articles and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Audubon, Sports Illustrated, Condé Nast Traveler, and Outside. She lives with her husband in Montana.
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Read an Excerpt


In the autumn of my forty-third year, I remembered, quite unexpectedly, that I was meant to be a pianist.

I was alone in my car, on my way to spend a weekend with friends. I fumbled through a box of cassette tapes I kept on the front passenger seat and found one my brother gave me: pianist Arthur Rubinstein performing Chopin waltzes. This might make a good soundtrack for the trip, I thought, and I pushed the cassette into the tape deck.

From the opening notes of Opus 18 — quick, percussive repetitions of B-flat — the car seemed to rock in sympathy to the driving three-quarter-time beat, taken at a wildly joyous tempo. Rubinstein's complete freedom within the music astonished me, and his abandonment to it was contagious — the music seemed to enter my pulse and carbonate my blood.

Meanwhile, through the windshield, Montana's luminous Indian summer performed a fitting accompaniment: a sapphire sky hung behind the Elkhorn Mountains, where tawny grasses gleamed in the lowering sun. Quaking aspen lined the banks of the Boulder River; their burnished leaves turned up their bellies to the wind and trembled in unison, a ribbon of gold threading its way up the valley.

I found myself gripping the steering wheel, as if I were hanging on for the ride, gripped myself by a piano-induced rapture that was as sweet as it was searing.

This is all that I want to do with my life. These words arose as if from nowhere in my mind, astonishing me. This is all that I want to do with my life. They hit with the force of an inner directive that cannot be questioned. They arose again and again, as if rising on the swells of the music itself.

The beauty of the day intensified the heartbreak: I felt as if I'd missed an urgent and critical appointment that could never be rescheduled. I had reached my own autumn, and the leaves would soon fall. How then could I devote my life to the piano? Copyright © 2008 by Perri Knize

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    It's about the Piano, not the Pianist

    I'm not sure why some reviewers seem to think this book should be about getting to be a better pianist by practicing. I almost didn't buy this book due to the two negative reviews here, but Amazon shows mostly 5-star ratings. Anyone with enough interest in music, especially in pianos, to practice regularly, would certainly find this book highly informative and enjoyable.<BR/><BR/>It's more about learning why a piano sounds the way it does, how that sound is created, and how and why we are profoundly affected by music than about how the author holds herself out as some kind of paragon of virtuosity. So many interesting characters, well-researched, skillfully written.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2008

    A never-ending story

    I give the book an A for originality. But I found the author's endless quest to adjust the sound of her piano rather tiring. If she had put equal effort into mastering her level of playing, she would not have to worry so much about chasing after the desired sound of the instrument. I thought the book would never end.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2008

    Nice prose with a flawed premise

    This book is fairly well-written, and begins by evoking a passion for music that any artist could relate to. Unfortunately, the primary premise of the book asks us to suspend reality, with the contention that the piano, and not the pianist is the primary creator of the music. There is no doubt that some pianos are better than others, but the pianist is the key. I have attended festival performances where one performer leaves the audience feeling as though a piano is lacking or out of tune, followed immediately by another who brings the same instrument to life through sheer passion and talent. No piano will make a poor player sound great, but a great pianist can make any decent piano soar.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2014

    Grandly informative

    As someone who loves all pianos, I thoroughly enjoyed this in depth look at one pianist's journey to find the instrument that touched her soul and to restore to her chosen piano, Marlene, the unique sounds that captured her heart in the showroom. I learned a great deal about what makes a piano as unique as the crafts-men/women who build it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2010

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    Posted December 2, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2011

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