Arun Venugopal is a reporter and the creator of Micropolis, WNYC’s multi-platform series examining race, sexuality, religion, street life and other issues that define New York City. He has been with the station since 2005, and has covered a wide range of stories, including the death of Sean Bell, the controversy over the Park 51 mosque and community center and Occupy Wall Street .
Micropolis: Musicians Make the Noisiest Neighbors
Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 04:00 AM
Practice, practice and so forth: everyone knows the long and tortured path to musical greatness.
But for every thrilling debut at Carnegie Hall, every heart-rending aria sung at the Met, there's a back story. A dark, discordant tale that finds a solitary musician banging away for hours in a 4th-floor Upper East Side walkup as the next-door neighbor goes purple with rage.
For this latest episode of Micropolis, we explore the not-so-harmonious side of the New York musician's life, wherein one wrong chord can result in a knock on the door, a volley of abuse, and maybe even... MURDER.
Listen to the entire story above, or read what Stephen Hough, Richard Goode and other musicians have to say, below.
Theresa Kim has toured the world and teaches students in her Upper East Side apartment. A while back her neighbor, the mother of a newborn, heard her practicing an atonal John Corigliano piece on her enormous Steinway-L, and started paying visits to Theresa.
"'It just sounds like you're IN my living room. Your instrument is huge. Can't you put a blanket on it, can't you put a blanket in it? Do something!'"
Theresa only played during the hours allowed by her building, and often practiced at her parents' home in Jersey, but it didn't matter: the neighbor lady kept returning -- sometimes twice a day. She'd complain whether Theresa was playing a gentle nocturne by Chopin, or something that made you feel like someone was just about to get murdered.
And then, the complaints stopped. The neighbor, it turns out, had moved away. Theresa still feels bad about the whole episode, and is pretty sure her music forced her neighbor out.
The piano virtuoso Richard Goode consistently earns the highest praise from the press, but even he's been told to stop practicing, in one case because the 4-year-old in the apartment next door couldn't sleep. In another instance, the neighbors said his playing was 'absolute torture.'
"One of them said 'You're going to drive us out in the rain if you continue this way.' When you experience that, it's terrible. Because you feel everything you do is causing suffering to people. And you get frustrated, and very angry."
"This is your life, this is your work, this is your discipline," he added. "And whenever you practice it, you feel it may be suffering for them. Of course you feel constraint. It enters the mind, and the body."
(Photo credit Steve Riskind)
"I'm really bothered if I know people can hear me practicing," wrote Stephen Hough in an email, "and I can't work seriously under those circumstances."
"My present solution in New York is a Yamaha Avant Grand digital piano. I turn the volume very low so only I can hear myself and I work away to my heart's content!"
"In London I'm fortunate enough to have a soundproof studio. If people can hear me working it feels a little like trying to write words with someone looking over my shoulder. I feel self-conscious and cannot let go. It's very important when practicing to 'work', not just to have fun playing through pieces … and working means playing the bits which don't sound good, not the ones which do. The other issue is the pianist hearing external noise. That can be a problem in a big city."
(Photo credit Andrew Crowley via CM Artists)
Ellie Shearing, wife of the late George Shearing
Ellie Shearing recalls the day a neighbor started banging on the Shearings' door.
"I'd never met him," she said, "and the first words out of his mouth were 'I can't have that noise!'"
Picture this. George Shearing -- composer of Lullaby of Birdland -- SIR George Shearing, who'd actually been knighted, by the Queen, in whose living room you'd find guys like Dick Hyman, Mel Torme, Bennie Goodman -- Sir George was being called a common noisemaker. Soon, lawyers were called in, and they arrived at the Shearing home to see what kind of a racket he was producing. But instead of duking it out, the Shearings responded in the way of civilized folk. Photos of George meeting with various American presidents were strategically placed, as was Sir George himself.
"He was in the living room" -- next to his Bosendorfer -- "and he said 'I would like to invite the entire board with their wives to be my guest at one of my shows at the Carlyle, because he was playing at the Carlyle at the time, and he said, "and then they will hear just how loudly I do not play.
"And that did it."
Seymour Bernstein has taught thousands of musicians. He's even the subject of a documentary being made by Ethan Hawke.
Now in his mid-80s, he's lived and taught in the same place on the Upper West Side for the last 59 years. It's a gorgeous ground-floor apartment that looks like an old-world salon, with all sorts of curios, like the tea kettle once owned by Robert and Clara Schumann.
He recounted the story of one loud-playing musician whose neighbor tried to kill him.
"Yeah, they left them something to eat at the door. 'You should try this.' And it was poisoned!"
In his book, "Monsters and Angels, Surviving a Career in Music," he described in great, graphic detail the fights he's had with both neighbors and, the quote, 'miserly, Dickensian landlords' he's had. Like Henry, who he described as charging up the stairs, "like a bull bent on the kill" while he hid inside his apartment.
At that moment, Seymour was scared Henry would return with the passkey. So he kept one hand on the door, and another on the phone, ready to call the police.
"The whole time, I heard (the wife) Lillian trying to soothe her husband, in the way that a serpent might hiss comfort to her mate."
This was in the 1970s. Seymour was repeatedly taken to court, but his right to play his piano at home, and teach, was repeatedly upheld. He in turn sued his landlord for a million dollars -- and says he won 10 thousand. But the ordeal haunted him, leaving him sleepless and exhausted.
Today, Ronen Segev runs Park Avenue Pianos, and lives on Central Park South, in the same apartment where Leon Fleisher once lived.
But years ago, he was just another Juilliard student, and his constant practice brought on the wrath of his neighbor, who started blasting Jay-Z through the walls.
Being the diligent student he was, Ronen responded musically, by simply playing along.
Consider it a high-low musical mashup: Chopin's Mazurkas vs. Jay-Z.
This kind of musical combat happens all the time -- people fight back with punk, with the Stones, crank the speakers up to 11 and just leave their apartment. All that noise crashing about, and who knows, maybe one in a thousand times, something interesting comes of it.
Marshak is a famous voice over artist, perhaps best known as the person introducing NBC's Today show. Today he lives next to the Guggenheim Museum , but he grew up in the Bronx, next to Yankee stadium, and said his musical accomplishments made him a minor celebrity in his building.
"There was a lot more encouragement and admiration for what we were doing. "keep on playing!" Nowadays, it's 'hmm, I heard the piano." A little indignant. i just think people are less tolerant."
That begs the question: Has the culture actually shifted -- are people less willing to tolerate musicians in their midst -- or does Marshak's point have more to do with the fact that he lives in a building with older, wealthier people?
Irene Roberts is a mezzo soprano who was most recently in the Met production of Parsifal.
Recently, she was in her living room, singing an aria from "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" -- a reworking of Romeo and Juliet -- when a bunch of middle-school boys walked by, outside. They heard her singing but couldn't see her, even though she was just a few feet away.
"And one of them stopped, and he's like 'Hey guys, wait up. Wait up. You hear that? You hear that?' ... And one guy said 'No, no, no, no, that can't be real, it can't be real. It's too good to be real. And one dude said, 'No man, that's it! It's too good to NOT BE REAL!'"
The group stood there debating this for about 5 minutes. Except for this one kid who wasn't talking. He was just standing on the sidewalk, transfixed. As if he'd never heard anything like it before. That, said Roberts, was the best part of all.