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Topic: Prison and Piano Tuning  (Read 235 times)

Offline themaximillyan

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Prison and Piano Tuning
on: June 03, 2023, 02:39:18 PM
Summer is a "dead" time of year for provincial piano tuners. Music schools and clubs are closed, and the young "Beethovens," as we call them, are on vacation and happy to get a break from the "grating" scales and arpeggios, even if they don't think it's long enough. Thus, requests for tunings are rare and come only from true music lovers, or due to some jubilees and celebrations, or sudden visits by little-known performers who always demand perfect tuning of their instruments. Well, Richter was in Uralsk only once, and he brought his own piano and tuner with him then, while the various "Ranetki" bands play under makeshift stage conditions requiring a different type of tuning.
Culture, as such, is a superstructural category that is determined by the economic situation in the country. While the economy in the former Soviet Union countries clearly does not aspire to perfection, it would be paradoxical if the spiritual component of the majority of the population leading a poor and powerless existence found expression in the worship of music and the development of personal musical abilities. When there is no bread, musicians fall silent. Only the modern-day "Neros" seem to be moving in this direction; our "princess," for example
Keeping in mind that rest is a change of activities, I spend my summers at my dacha, where the heavy physical labor involved, on the one hand, increases my level of material well-being in the form of vegetables, fruits, and berries, while on the other hand, it can be seen as a form of relaxation. And when I become really exhausted, I allow myself to go fishing. Fortunately, in Uralsk, there are still natural opportunities for it. Of course, due to financial limitations, transportation, and most importantly, the lack of necessary connections within the supervisory authorities, I cannot engage in fishing on a larger scale to improve my income. But I can still catch a couple of carp (not buy them), even in the city.
Uralsk is located in a triangle bordered by the rivers Derkul, Chagan, and Ural (also known as Yaiq in the past). The city park is located on the banks of the Chagan River, which is very close to my home. The park was established during the Tsarist era by the Ataman of the Ural Cossacks. Later, it was given a new "revolutionary" name, "Kirov Park," and I'm not sure what its official name is now. Several successive leaders of our region "modernized" it. They demolished the tents and other trading points of their predecessors, built their own restaurants, asphalted all the paths and trails, installed "Arbat-like" streetlights, and are now building a grandiose bridge across the Chagan. At the same time, trees were cut down, but the main thing remained, the Chagan River and its fish, which enter this tributary of the Ural River during floods.
In our dusty and incredibly hot city in the summer, the park serves as a relief valve and is always filled with relaxing people, especially on weekends and holidays. During the week, there aren't many people, but the clientele is quite constant. Lifeguards and water sports club employees come early to check the nets set up in advance, despite the categorical official ban. Then the first group leaves to sleep, and the second group arrives with children, whom they teach to kayak and canoe. In the early morning, middle-aged women can be seen doing their exercise routine, swimming, and doing gymnastics. Despite police bans, cyclists and even motorcyclists zoom down the asphalt paths, while grandmothers and nannies walk with their grandchildren. In the summer, the shore is filled with children swimming and "drunk" groups. There are many police officers who change shifts with each other. It's easy to "catch" women of the oldest profession, and there is a group of people who collect bottles and constantly quarrel at the borders of "their" territories. Homeless people and other representatives of the "bottom" of the city have recently increased in number.
I've known this park literally since birth. Due to my parents' lack of wealth, they couldn't afford a more exotic type of relaxation, so they brought me here from the cradle. Then I ran here on my own, and since my financial situation didn't allow me to escape Uralsk at the time, I continue to visit this park.

Among the regular visitors to the park, there is another community that stands somewhat separate from the others - ex-convicts. You can always recognize members of this group - they are always dressed in dark clothing, even in the heat, and often wearing old uniforms. They are constantly on guard, silent, and do not engage in conversations. Sometimes they gather in groups of two or three, then disperse. I go fishing at night, so I can confirm that they also spend the night here.
It should be noted that ex-convicts have been observed in the park before, but previous encounters with them were quite rare. The times were such that the laws did not allow for official "homelessness," and there was even a law against idleness. Officially, there was no unemployment, so even those who were often and formally employed, or "counted," tried to hide their status until new "adventures." They do their best to adapt to the current situation since there is no need to conceal their social status, nor is there any job that could occupy them. Some of them are experiencing the time before their next sentence in our park.
There are always many fishermen on the Chagan River, both in the summer and on the ice in winter. Local elders, children, blatant poachers who have connections with oversight agencies, and just people who enjoy sitting on the shore with a fishing rod. Some ex-convicts also do not disdain fishing as a way to somehow feed themselves. I involuntarily got to know one of them who fished constantly. It's difficult to maintain isolation when there is always someone else nearby, and it so happened that our "baited" places turned out to be next to each other. He told me about how he was summoned to tune a piano, and he was happy that he could finally do something in prison besides just existing. However, when he saw the instrument, he panicked. The piano was old and required serious tuning, but he had no tools or equipment. There was nothing there except for the old prison.
He was somewhere near Krasnoyarsk, hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest settlement, apparently stranded in Russia. He didn't say much about the reasons for his incarceration, mirroring Ostap Bender by saying it was for "trivial reasons." But when he found out that I was a tuner by profession, he perked up and recounted an incident that occurred during his incarceration and was related to this profession.
It was a plot that has already been played out in several comedies today, and was related to the organization of some ceremonial events in the prison. It was either their correctional facility's anniversary or some holiday, where the upper echelons must be present. He witnessed the events and was able to describe them in detail because he had some musical education and was present as a consultant.
He came to the prison with a guitar. He probably really did end up there "by chance," since he immediately tried to play guitar in his cell under the influence of stories about prison romance. Among the prisoners, this was not welcomed and was considered a bold and provocative attempt to "earn" conditional early release by participating in cultural and mass events. Given his short "tenure," they did not resort to methods that corresponded to this offense, and simply advised him to go to the club where he met a numerous army of similar bards. And since he played "tolerably" and even unusually, including on the piano, he caught the attention of the authorities, who remembered him when there was a need to give a concert by the prisoners for a solemn occasion.
The scale of the event was apparently high enough, as they invited a professional pianist from the city, who put forth his conditions, agreeing to play only on a well-tuned instrument. The head of the prison club assumed that the piano was tuned at the factory and only the guitar needed tuning. That's when they remembered our hero.


He also told me about the condition of the piano, which was a pre-war instrument of unknown make. Several keys didn't work, and the tuning was such that in some places, you had to press a neighboring key instead of the one indicated in the notes. Those who played on it were already used to this. He reported this to his superiors, as there was no specialist with a higher qualification in the prison, and he was tasked with leading the process of preparing the instrument for the concert.
He knew theoretically how to tune an instrument, as he had some musical education, but he had never seen it done live. He knew that the strings were under enormous tension from his school days, so he ordered a tuning key from his superiors, even though he had never seen one before. There were many skilled workers in the prison, and they brought in several welders and highly skilled locksmiths who made the tuning key out of a standard-sized steel bar that was bent at a 90-degree angle at the end. This end had a conical square indentation to the size of the tuning peg, which was used to tighten the strings. He tried it out, but the force on the handle wasn't as strong as he thought it would be, and the bar was cut in half, leaving about 60-70 centimeters. Incidentally, the description of this key reminded the author of his first homemade key, although it was much smaller.
Naturally, there was no tuning fork in the prison. They brought a tuning fork with them from the city for some occasion, even though the instrument was practically already in tune by then. He made a slight mistake but retuned the entire instrument again based on the tuning fork. It wasn't difficult for him, as despite being of a solid age, the instrument had never been tuned since it was first used, the peg seats were intact and in good condition, and the string tension did not change after tuning. When he played, he started with "Mura" and half of the prison colony gathered around to listen, mouths agape. Due to numerous requests, he played all the prison "classics", and then everything else he knew. Everyone was delighted, even his cellmates who had initially chased him to the club with his guitar.
The head of the club invited the chief of the colony to come visit. The chief came with his daughter who was studying music in a school in the city. She also played "Grandma's House Had a Fence...", made a thoughtful face, and said that it was good. For her father, this was the final verdict - there was no one else to consult. But then the chief noticed the appearance of the instrument. It should be noted that it did not look classical at all. The entire surface of its external wooden parts was coveredwith intricate carvings that replicated numerous and diverse tattoos of the prisoners. The authorities might not have understood, so he ordered everything to be filled and painted with a neutral color, perhaps with some specific "twist".
There were many skilled artisans here, but actual work was scarce due to the stagnant times. Some of the most favored and influential individuals managed to secure jobs at one of the "underground" sawmills of the local and regional prison authorities for a higher pay. Others were content with the fact that such "lucky ones" brought wooden blanks from their workplace for handicrafts. Souvenir backgammon and chess were mass produced. Woodworking specialists said that the instrument could not be filled, as the carving was deep and of high quality, and the entire filling could crumble during play. Therefore, it needed to be overhauled.
All the carving was removed completely, and the wooden parts were covered with a special multi-layer veneer. Everything was skillfully sanded and polished. With the closed keys, ingeniously fantasizing, the instrument could be taken for a tall, spacious, multi-compartment coffin made of redwood. Strictly following the instructions of the club leader, the club manager realized that such a vision of "uniqueness" would not be liked by the authorities, and at his own risk, he had the instrument painted in a "khokhloma" style. There were specialists in this direction, and a spoon maker from the central part of Russia did this work. The quality of the painting, the applied paints and varnishes gave a striking effect. The combination of a golden ground with juicy and bright red, green, and black inclusions of fantastic colors and plants made the instrument a work of art. Now, on the stage of the gloomy club, it was perceived as an oasis, like a museum of southern exotic plants beyond the Arctic Circle.
The pianist from the city arrived a day before the performance. The quality of the instrument tuning was quite satisfactory to him. He was a little surprised only by its external appearance and asked if the instrument had been made here, directly in the zone, to which they replied that the instrument was factory-made, and this was only the external finish. Rehearsals began in the morning, and there were enough "artists" in the zone as well. They sang classics, such as "Evening Bells," and a few songs by modern composers. There was no special props or costumes, so all the acts had a slightly specific shade, reminiscent of the opening frames of V. Shukshin's film "The Red Bilberry."
The high leadership also appreciated the preparation and gave a positive assessment. All the accompanying faces of the authorities approached the instrument after the concert and whispered to the local leader, ordering souvenirs in a similar style.
That's the story my friend told me over the course of several days we spent together on the shores of Lake Chagan. Then he suddenly disappeared, and I never saw him again. I would have liked to know about his current situation and plans, but unfortunately, it never happened. There could have been many assumptions about this case, given his manner of narration and some specific character of the storytelling; his stories could have formed the basis for other materials for publication, but apparently, it was not meant to be.
Uralsk, March 2012.
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