Almond and Orange

Too warm for a fire today, here in West L.A. Predicted high is 68; my “fireplace max” is 60. (OK, there have been days I’ve made a fire at a chilly 5:30 A.M., kept it going all morning for cozy practicing, and emerged at noon to find it 80 F outside.)

Our latest mix of almond and orange woods is delightful. Orange makes leaping flames, and together they give a lovely aroma. (OK, it was above 60 when I first tried the combination.)

In my mind, fireplaces connect to music studios. At my first teacher’s, the hiss of the gas fireplace, and its flickering flames, calmed the turmoil I brought from dealing with other parts of the Universe. And my teacher was patient even when I’d not practiced for the second week in a row. (OK, sometimes the fifth week.)

At college in New England, I tried to grab the one practice room with a fireplace, even though it never had a fire; instead, its calm sense of isolation was created by heavy snowfalls outside tall uncovered windows.

When I married, we first lived in Santa Monica, in an old house on 14th St. The piano sat in the teak-framed front window, with a fuchsia volunteering just outside. The fog volunteered, too, staying sometimes for three days and three nights, so heavy I couldn’t see beyond the fuchsia; no street, no sidewalk; not even our own front walk. Behind me as I practiced was a cozy wood fire in the little fireplace bordered with Batchelder tiles.

It was there I decided that, like the fuchsia and the fog, I should volunteer if I wanted performing experience and couldn’t get anyone to pay me. So I called Santa Monica City Schools, and Recreation & Parks; ditto for Los Angeles; and gave my pitch. And learned to my rueful amusement that what I’d always thought, and always said, really was true: “If they don’t pay you, they don’t value you.” They valued freebie me so little that they turned me down flat.

It was in this house, too, standing at the piano, that I received the news of my father’s terminal illness. My first thought was, “He’ll never know his grandchild” (since we had no children then).

What was in time for Dad to know was my starting as Pianist in Residence at Caltech in April of ’74. I held the post till June, ’04, giving formal recitals, casual music/talk sessions, and private lessons, all in Dabney Lounge, which seats 200 or so and, in those days, was acoustically the best room in Los Angeles: hardwood floor over air, teak-wood French doors, an open-beam ceiling, a little balcony at one end, and a big fireplace at the other. This fireplace, too, was never used, but still was comforting to see.

In ’94 came the quake that did major damage to our house—we’d moved to West L.A.—among other things breaking the chimney. We considered giving up he fireplace—plastering up the wall— but it was too dear to me. After all possible government agencies assured me that we could use the fireplace forever after rebuilding in the original manner, we replaced it from footing to spark arrester. Perhaps it seems silly, when we build a fire only a few dozen times a year; but the rebuilt fireplace reminds me daily of my whole history, at the piano and away from it.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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