Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Friday, September 25, 2009

In appreciation of Forbes Piano Company

Birmingham, Alabama, where I spent my childhood, has lost an institution in its musical life, the E. E. Forbes Piano Company, which closed this summer. (The Montgomery location is still open.) Until I moved away from Birmingham, I did not realize what a treasure this store was. As a piano student, I spent plenty of time at Forbes browsing through filing cabinets of sheet music, trying pieces out on one of the display pianos. They had an astonishing inventory, some of it decades old, and I can remember buying a few pieces for the original publisher's price of less than a dollar.

(Perhaps I am remembering wrong, but I think Forbes also had a location in Eastwood Mall in the early-mid 1980s, which moved to the Golbro shopping center, then closed around 1990 or so. The Golbro location is where I took some guitar lessons during one of my rebellions from classical piano. Eastwood Mall yielded to the wrecking ball in 2006-07 in favor of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and the recent recession finally brought about the demise of Century Plaza.)

Of course, as with book and CD stores, this kind of shopping experience is becoming obsolete with the development of Internet retailers who can provide the "long tail" on demand. While much of the sheet music available at Forbes is available from retailers such as sheetmusicplus.com, and the out-of-print items might turn up on eBay, one must know in advance what to look for. It's harder to enjoy the serendipity of finding a new piece, trying it out on the piano, and then adding it to one's repertory.

In particular, I have a memory of finding a contemporary score at Forbes that I never would have found otherwise: Fantasia on an Ostinato by John Corigliano, a minimalist work by an otherwise neo-Romantic composer. I was intrigued by this work as I played through it in Forbes's showroom, bought the score, and played around with it at home (especially the passages in indefinite notation, where the performer is given latitude to construct a realization). As I put together my senior piano recital at Sewanee, I wanted at least one work by a living composer, and this one fit the bill nicely. My teacher, Steve Shrader, had not been familiar with the work before I introduced it to him, but he generously allowed me to add the work to my lessons. I could not have managed the technically difficult passages without his input.

I remember reading in John Szwed's biography of jazz great Sun Ra, Space is the Place, that Sun Ra (then known as Sonny Blount) spent plenty of time at Forbes in his youth. It is a testament to Forbes's reputation that they nurtured such an artist at a time when many downtown Birmingham merchants treated black customers as second class citizens. For example, as recounted in Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home, until the civil rights protests of the 1960s, black customers at the downtown department stores could buy clothing, but they were not allowed to try the clothes on, and all sales were final.