- Nathan Yoder
Back in 2015, the one-and-only Nils Frahm invented Piano Day. On the holiday's official website, Frahm writes, “Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.”
Now, every year when the 88th day rolls up (88 days for 88 keys - get it?) piano enthusiasts rejoice. Folks around the globe observe the holiday in many different ways, but I typically set aside some time to take in a few of the compilations put together by various organizations, labels, and artists.
I've never written about Piano Day before, and did not intend to this year, but after learning of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou's passing on Monday, things changed. After hearing the news, I dropped the needle on her classic record (an emotional experience indeed), but when the final melody closed, I went down a rabbit hole. One piano-centric vinyl led to the next, and then another, and another after that. As the records spun, I thought about my experiences related to each title. A few of them had no special backstory - they were simply Bandcamp purchases or record store finds, but a handful of others brought back fond memories.
And that's when I decided that for Piano Day 2023, I'd share just five of those stories. They aren't terribly exciting or anything, but they are special to me. And hey, if you're not entertained, you should at least listen to these five albums today.
I suppose I should start with the album that kicked off this whole journey: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou's Éthiopiques 21. Years ago, I was reading a longform profile about a musician I admired, and near the end of the piece there was a picture of her seated in front of an extensive record collection. I zoomed in on the image and took stock of all of the titles. I mean, who better to recommend music than musicians? I recognized some albums, but others (including this one) were unfamiliar to me. I streamed my way thought the list, and Éthiopiques 21 gave me pause. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou's backstory was remarkable, but so to were her simple yet elegant piano compositions. It felt to me like it was the perfect solo piano album. I think that either my wife or I ended up ordering a copy from Mississippi Records (again, this was years ago so it's hard to recall), and the rest is history. Later, this album blew up on Pitchfork and such (didn't I also see it on a car commercial?) and I'm happy to have snagged a copy when I did.
Skipping ahead a bit, in 2016 I traveled to Portugal with my wife and a couple of our close friends. We did typical tourist stuff in Lisbon and Porto, spent some extended time in the Duoro Valley since our friends are in the wine biz, and ended our trip in a sleepy town on the southern coast. On maybe our second-to-last day in Salema, it dawned on me that we were just a few miles from Aljezur, where Grouper recorded Ruins. Part of her inspiration for that album was rooted in walks through ruins on her way to the Atlantic Ocean, so we decided to go check out those same landscapes. It's a gorgeous corner of the country full of rolling hills, dramatic shoreline, a lot of surfers, and yes, a few ruins, and it felt so special to see the place where one of my all-time favorite albums was concieved.
And now another jump. In the fall of 2019 I was struggling with life stuff, work stuff, all of it. I took a day off and drove up the Oregon Coast Range to hike around a bit, and as I recall, I even listened to Nils Frahm's All Encores as I wound through the mountains. Hey, I tied it back to Nils! Coming back into town, I popped by Beacon Sound's storefront (RIP) and it might have been the first time I actually met Andrew (the store's owner and label head) in person. We chatted a bit and I think that I volunteered myself to help out at events and such. I then spent some time digging, and eventually pulled out Eluvium's Pianoworks. I knew about this album already, but bought a physical copy, took it home, and put it on. Of all of my records, this one might sound the best on vinyl - just the right amount of warble and perfectly warm. It was a great end to a much needed mental health day.
Just about a month later, my wife and I traveled deep into the Cascades to visit Breitenbush Hot Springs and Retreat Center for a day of relaxation. I was sick as shit (pre-Covid, thank goodness), but decided to soak anyway, thinking it might help clear me up. The universe is crazy, because we happened to land in a pool right next to Trevor Oswalt (who records as East Forest) and struck up a conversation. After our soak and a meal, my wife and I were reading our books in the lounge, when Oswalt plopped down at the lodge's piano and played 30-ish minutes of soft, improvised music. We took it all in, and when I got home later that weekend, I put on my copy of East Forest's Held and it felt extra special.
During the pandemic we were all trapped at home, looking for anything to do. I was consuming so so so much new music, but even that was becoming tiresome. Spotify. Blech. On corners of the web it was rumored that the mysterious Tasty Morsels label would be releasing copies of H Hunt's cult classic Playing Piano for Dad on vinyl, but I had only seen overseas folks posting pictures of their copies. That was when Portland's own Tone Poem announced that they had procured a few copies for local sale. I immediately messaged them and sped to their storefront (again, RIP), wanting the record, but also just excited to get the fuck outta my house for once! Masked up, holding my copy, it felt like a sliver of happiness during a really heavy time.
And that's it! Some personal piano memories for Piano Day. Thanks for reading, and like I said, listen to a couple (or all) of these albums today if you're looking for a way to celebrate.