The Overtone Years


The number 88, referring to the number of keys on a piano, hovers in our collective memory. I remember a character in a Dick Tracy comic strip named 88 Keys, and I’ve listened to honky-tonk pianists who call themselves “Mister 88” or who “tickle the 88s.”

As anyone who ever played a piano knows, the 88-note keyboard is our universe, bounded by the highest note that the ear can comfortably enjoy and the lowest note that a crazed Russian composer might compose. To venture beyond the wooden frame that encloses those 88 notes would be to fall off the earth.

Earlier this fall, if asked my age, I could say that I was just as old as the number of keys on a piano. Then, on October 7, I wasn’t. I had outlived the standard Western keyboard and the largest piano. But then I was told that Bösendorfer, the Austrian manufacturer of sumptuous concert grands, makes a 9-foot, 6-inch model that has nine extra keys at the low end of the scale. I was saved! I had entered the Bösendorfer years.

Those nine extra bass notes almost never get played. But they give the piano a deeper and darker tone because their “strings,” which are made of wire, are longer and thicker than the longest strings on a standard piano. They therefore generate overtones, which produce resonances with compatible notes of higher frequency farther up the scale.

So the Bösendorfer years are overtone years. That’s as it should be—old age is mostly overtones. Older people have long since played all the necessary notes and musical forms: the joyful capriccios at the birth of a child or the graduation of a grandchild, the somber Bach fugues at the inevitable visits of disappointment and death. We are left only with the overtones of those long-gone events—their endlessly overlapping echoes and vibrations.

As a fourth-generation New Yorker I live with overtones wherever I go. I pass the apartment where my parents lived to their own old age, and the Herald Tribune building where I had my first job, and the office where my wife came out of the Midwest to work for Life, and the various places where our children went to school and where we all went to church on Sunday. Those places send sympathetic ripples across the decades—intermingled memories of happy and productive times.

Today my city has been dimmed by glaucoma; the landscape is hazy. But my shoes still know the way. Every morning I walk from my apartment to my office, skirting long-familiar potholes and Con Edison excavations, and when I arrive I go to my computer, formerly an Underwood typewriter, as I always have. There I am anchored in my craft. The irrelevancies of the world close down around me and I’m alone with my materials, as the painter is finally alone with his canvas and the potter is alone with her wheel. I now write this column mainly from personal experience and remembered detail, not from external sources. I turn on my computer and I listen for overtones.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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