Piano Action

imaginary composition of indeterminate duration, 2020.

Commission: Decolonial Imaginings series produced by of-the-now with the Vancouver Foundation and the Canadian Music Centre BC region, October 2020


“Come with me to the edge of the tracks, through the rotting wood and rusting metal of the train turntable, where under the Manitoba maples and aspens grow deadly nightshade and goldenrod, mulberry, Queen Anne’s lace and wild rose. The fence has been knocked down in places and what’s left of the freight yard buried in trash. In the middle of the night, people pull up at the bottom of the Rona car park, dumping whatever it is they want to forget: a red glove, McDonald’s wrappers, a red Tim Horton’s coffee cup, yellow plastic strapping from shipping pallets, a Harvie’s Canadian coffee cup, dog poop in a knotted black plastic bag, white styrofoam cups, empty antifreeze jugs, window cleaner bottles, and plastic bags.

Walk a little further, past a shopping cart with a squirrel perched on top, to the old transfer table. Sit down and rest on one of the plywood bar stools, discards from someone’s kitchen island. There’s an old toilet in the long grass, a white sneaker without laces, blue surgical masks (used once), and plastic bottles — Pepsi, Gatorade, Naya, Polish Spring.

On the other side of the train tracks once stood the Heintzman piano factory. Now a non-descript brick, concrete and glass condo looms over rows of Victorian brick terraces and a Tibetan Buddhist temple. In 1890 they made 1,000 pianos each year, sending them by rail to Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Kenora, Winnipeg, Regina, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Medicine Hat, Calgary, Banff, Kamloops, and Vancouver.

Twenty years later the factory was still busy, wood hanging to dry in the central courtyard and workers arriving every morning to build pianos. William Fell was one of those workers — a piano action finisher. He’d connect everything together like a see-saw so that the hammers hit the strings in just the right place, so the keys felt not too heavy and not too light, and the pedals muffled the strings or allowed them to ring on and on… William lived with his wife Inazetta in the same house I now live in. The last trace of William that I find is a military record: “Previously reported Wounded and Missing, now for official purposes presumed to have died in the vicinity of Avion on or since July 23rd 1917.”

piano action finish

finish piano action

This introduction is nearly finished.”