NANCY GARNIEZ AND TONAL REFRACTION: AN UNLIKELY LIFE STORY

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Tonal Refraction arose from a lifelong fascination with vibrations, matched with a need to communicate with others, and with the challenge of a birth defect which made playing the piano “biomechanically impossible.” 

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My mother’s native Spanish was forbidden at home, as it would brand us as “other.” That linguistic barrier may account for my powerful need to connect with others. My ear was awakened by fooling around on a neighbor’s piano. I loved the sound; I loved being listened to by it’s owner. We moved away as I turned five.

At age six I learned to read music, singing in a children’s choir, at the same time as I was learning to read words. Being in tune with centuries of people singing the same hymn meant the world to me. (I continued to sing a cappella throughout my life.) At seven the choir director insisted that my father buy a piano and that I study with her. I soon recognized the piano as effectively three different instruments: one played beautifully for choir rehearsals; one, utterly lifeless, associated with the John Thompson Book I; and the instrument on which I fooled around incessantly, never practicing my lesson, but devouring everything in sight and in sound.

At about age twelve I encountered printed music which evoked a response akin to that of singing timeless hymns. In a Mozart sonata, for the first time, the piano came alive via the printed page. I did not love the piece as a whole, for it made no sense that sounds that I loved were outnumbered by so many that I vividly disliked.

At age fourteen I played my first piano concerto with orchestra: Mozart’s A Major, K. 488: ecstasy.
Then, at fifteen, I was assigned to perform with my high school orchestra Saint-Saens’s G minor Concerto, presented to me as standard piano repertoire. I so loathed the work that I announced I was quitting the piano, upon which my teacher said he would teach me the organ.

I now understand: The concerto is based on two tones famously incompatible on any keyboard, no matter how it is tuned: F# and B-flat. There is no way that these two black keys can produce a plausible diminished fourth. Beethoven used the sound only to spoof the natural horn’s odd intonation in his Op. 17 Sonata for Piano and Natural Horn (which I play with my son). I once heard a theoretician discuss that same implausible sound. Thus, I now know that my reaction was legitimate, though at age fifteen I was powerless to express my dislike. I did feel strongly, however, that if that was standard piano repertoire I did not want to be a pianist.

Thus began my career as an organist, playing professionally, then entering Oberlin Conservatory as an Organ Major. Preferring the impassioned curiosity of Liberal Arts students over the competitive conformity of the conservatory, I transferred after one semester to the College. (Six years later, for the same reason, I lasted only one semester as Assistant Professor of Piano in the Conservatory.)

A Liberal Arts student majoring in music was, at that time, considered lowest of the low. My organ teacher, Fenner Douglass, newly returned from sabbatical, declared that status was irrelevant: I must fulfill the Conservatory Organ Major’s performance requirements. Organ study included practicing on a highly touch-sensitive tracker-action organ built by Dirk Flentrop, the first of its kind in the U.S., thanks to Fenner. In my senior year I was appointed College organist and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.


I received a Fulbright, originally to study with Gustav Leonhardt, but shifted to Helmut Walcha in Frankfurt. That switch was fortuituous. It meant that I could live with a German family whose daughter, an exchange student at Oberlin, had been my friend. As she would not be living at home that year, I could rent her room in which there was a piano.

That was the turning point in my musical life.

I played the piano regularly in chamber music with the family at home and on visits with friends or relatives, all of whom were accomplished amateurs. Music for them was more than a pleasant way to pass the time: Most of the men in the family, having been part of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler, had been executed 13 years earlier. This environment apparently released a level of mature candor so evident as to prompt my piano teacher at the Hochschule to remark: “You are not an organist; you are a pianist.”

All I ever really wanted to achieve in life was mastery of the piano.

Upon return to the U.S. I became a full scholarship student of Hans Neumann at the Mannes College of Music Extension Division. His assessment that I would be playing professionally within three years was not to be, however, as my congenital spinal deformity limited technical progress. Then I read Viktor Zuckerkandl’s Sound and Symbol, which affirmed my earliest childhood listening and offered a basis for teaching people of all ages who wanted music in their lives as much as I did.

It seemed self-evident that the goal of music study should be to affirm shared experience. In the mid-1960’s I began experimental teaching based on Zuckerkandl’s findings. This entailed learning to listen without the printed score, for merely looking at notation engaged my ear-brain in theoretical systems irrelevant to sound either as perceived by students or imagined by composers.

Beginning in my late 30’s I had begun performing chamber music despite physical limitations. I experimented with my ear: learning to play cello; tuning and playing harpsichord; and teaching amateurs to sight-sing in tune. (What was to be an 8-week experiment lasted for over 25 years with many of the original participants still singing.)

Seeking to broaden the prevailing definition of chamber music, in 1975 I inaugurated a program at the Mannes Extension Division, open to players of all levels, teaching ensemble repertoire that they would not find on recording. In 1983 I incorporated Alaria Chamber Ensemble to team-teach that program, which included styles from Renaissance to contemporary, as did the programming of the ensemble once we began performing in 1986. Our goal in programming was to include always at least one work that someone in the audience would be hearing for the first time, whether because composed during the Renaissance or written last week.  Alaria was unique in that its unconventional programming and its funding were entirely community-based.  Composers were delighted to have their music heard by a general audience, many of whom remarked on their new-found openness to contemporary music.

My piano playing continued to be limited until, at age 53, an advance in physical therapy alleviated my physical discomfort, permitting a return to solo piano playing. Tonal Refraction arose out of renewed awareness of the piano fully resonant on its own terms.

However, fifteen years of strenuous playing with a poorly aligned skeleton resulted in a “baseball player’s injury.” Surgery on my right hand was followed by ten years of intensive core muscle training. Only at age 82 did properly supported arms enable me, for the first time in my life, to really play the piano. To celebrate I engaged some highly energetic, virtuoso string players to perform a series called Mozart : Modernist, consisting of music by Mozart and Brahms. Every note of preparation and performance reflected pre-conscious rather than prepared responses. We played like amateurs.

The approach so transformed their lives that we became The Tonal Refraction Ensemble (Artie Dibble, viola/violin; Dave Eggar, cello) and are now embarked on a ground-breaking trajectory combining audio and visual media in a new way in order to inspire others: COLORING TIME.

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