I recently read Thad Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier and the book has set me musing. Carhart is an American writer who has lived in Paris for much of his life and The Piano Shop is his sensitive recounting of his accidental discovery of a charming and unique piano repair and restoration store in a small quarter in Paris. Protected against that city’s famous damp winter chill by only a monstrous old wood stove, the workshop, so chock full of pianos and piano parts that Carhart reports one often had to clamber, duck and weave to make one’s way through it, is overseen by a master craftsman who collects, restores and sells pianos of all sorts and ages from all over the world. Luc is a walking treasure trove of information on the piano and his love of the instrument runs deep. His abiding preference, fulfilled whenever possible, is to sell pianos he “finds” to those whose sensibilities best “fit” them. Carhart’s serendipitous encounter with the atelier owner begins not only a fast friendship while providing a lens into French society, but also a soon treasured re-acquaintance with an instrument and a passion for playing music that had for some years been dormant in his life.
It is the import of that ardor and the ways in which it so obviously shaped the author’s life and perspective that set me reflecting. It is not only a matter of how a piano (and perhaps other instruments as well) can become part of an individual’s and a family’s life and in some way begin to conjure experiences and relationships and feelings in profound and indefinable ways, but also how the instrument can evoke not only human uniqueness, but also pathways to the sublime and to appreciation of one’s lived experience and memory. Here is how Carhart described the distinctively powerful capacity of this complex instrument to evoke claims on its owners:
We invest it with our dreams, we touch it off-handedly as we walk by, we crown it with favorite photos and treasured objects until it becomes a kind of domestic shrine. But when it is gone from our lives, it can’t really be replaced, not for what it encompasses as part of a life’s progress.
While he did not employ the term, it seems clear the piano served not only as an avenue to the sublime and to its individual expression for Carhart, but it also unleashed his aesthetic imagination. That turn allowed the author to envision new possibilities and to experience emotions and reflections he argues he otherwise would never have known. Herbert Marcuse pointed up this power of the arts and art making more generally in his final book, The Aesthetic Dimension:
This experience (participation in an art-making or an artistic possibility) culminates in extreme situations (of love and death, guilt and failure, but also joy, happiness and fulfillment), which explode the given reality in the name of a truth normally denied or even unheard.
Carhart’s text may be read as a loving reflection on the power of the aesthetic imagination to shape virtually all dimensions of human experience, and of the arts to unleash that potential. For Carhart, this possibility lay in the complex sonority, engineering and lasting beauty of a well-constructed piano as well as with the evocative and sweeping power it may release when beautifully played. For others, that opportunity may lay in theatrical performance or challenging poetry or in painting or sculpture. The specific form is not the key. Rather, the arts, music in this instance, provide an avenue to new ways of knowing, novel nuances of experience and fresh subtleties of emotional and intellectual ideation, and it is these that so profoundly shape individual possibility. Carhart’s thoughtful homage to the piano and its meanings in his and his friend Luc’s lives, offers more than a winning memoir. It provides a distinctive lens into the evocative power of art to shape human understanding.