Close Encounters: Brian Hughes and Lisa Rohn

An evening with two major musicmakers.


The one thing you can depend on with old friends — excruciatingly old, as in 28 years of knowing each other — is that you’ll laugh more than you ever realized possible. I met Brian Hughes and Lisa Rohn, world-class pianists and composers, back in 1991 after Marty and 7-year-old Charlie and I had moved to the Vineyard year-round. 

Young Charlie had already proved himself too much of a comedian to buckle down to violin lessons. The screek-screek of his little bow against the kid-size violin made all three of us fall down laughing. We needed a piano teacher, and we needed one fast.

Brian Hughes, formerly of Wisconsin, trained at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and now living across from Norton Farm in Vineyard Haven, was recommended. Who did the recommending? We can’t remember as, the other night, we stood in the Rohn/Hughes kitchen on Massasoit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. 

Young Charlie turned out to be Brian’s first pupil. Lisa says on this recent night, “I already had students — some of them in diapers, well, not really but almost — but when I tried to convince Brian to supplement his income with lessons, he said, ‘Only college students.’”

And then the Nadlers gave him a call about their second grader. 

We made our first appointment just before Halloween of ’91, when a weather front whooshed in that we Islanders called the No Name Storm. Later writer Sebastian Junger would dub it “The Perfect Storm.” 

So there we sat in our unprotected house along the shores of East Chop, as waves barreled in big as anything you ever saw in “Hawaii Five-0.” We called Brian to cancel, and he, out in the woods off the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, only saw trees getting medium-thrashed. He wrote us off as Hollywood wusses, although thankfully he took Charlie on after all. 

It took the movie release of “The Perfect Storm” in 2000 to clear our reputation.

As we stood this past Thursday night in Brian and Lisa’s bright kitchen, with thin floorboards painted apple green, cabinets royal blue, a blue-and-white checked oilskin cloth over the table, I show them my slow-cooker soup. Lisa expresses disappointment that it isn’t the butternut squash I’d originally promised. 

Instead it’s — I don’t know what to call it — beer and Cheddar cheese Welsh Rarebit? And here’s my small tragedy: I’ve already sloshed half of it over the backseat of my borrowed car. 

This is how close we are that Lisa has full rights to guilt-trip me this way. She also gets up in my face about how I’ve missed the two debuts of Brian’s recent show, he composing, Abby Bender writing, co-producing, and dancing, “Inhabit the Garden,” with poetry by T.S. Eliot.

It premiered back in November at a private house in Oak Bluffs, with a second date at the same home. “Brian sent out emails,” Lisa argues. “How could you have missed both dates?”

How to explain such lunkheadedness? “I’ve stopped keeping a hard-cover calendar,” I tell her, “But I forget to check my notes on my phone.”

As we sit around the table, Brian, who has already created a Better Homes and Gardens scene with placemats and matching cloth napkins, now offers bowls of soup, bending his face to level it with mine. He’s got a funny voice to begin with, kind of excitable, so when he asks me, “Do you want yours now?” I burst out laughing.

Brian also provides everyone at the table — Lisa, me, and photographer Lexi Pline — glasses of organic wine. Lisa recommends it: “It’s got no sulfites! That cuts down on allergic reactions.”

I say, “Then, hey! I’ll try it!”

They stare at me with trepidation. This woman in their midst who has already spilled soup in her car — can she be trusted with a glass of wine? “Just a teense,” I tell Brian, holding my fingers to a peanut-size width. 

Lisa reminisces about her own days at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she met Briain back in ’86, “back when I could sit in halls and get up again.” She roves even farther afield to her school years at the Putney School in Vermont. “It was a farm school founded by progressives.”

And because you find, when couples have been together for so long, one person’s story is curated by the other, Brian adds, “The kids were given farm chores.”

We bounce back to the year 2006, when Lisa and I became friends over her daily visits to my store, Sun Porch Books on Circuit Avenue. I reminded her of how she first impressed me with her tight budgeting. I had a book, one of those popular book club titles — maybe it was “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert? The cost stamped on the back — normally a nonnegotiable figure — was amply over the price for which she could procure it on Amazon. 

“They’re only charging $12.16.” 

“Tell you what,” I said to this fiscally responsible reader. “You can have it for $12.16 if we can make that your set price for everything in the future.” 

Brian pipes up now, “Even for greeting cards?”

I chuckle. “I do recall Lisa paying $12.16 for everything.”

Over dinner we can’t stop circling back to old memories. I remind Brian of a story he told from his days of waiting tables in Boston while he earned his master’s degree in music. “Remember that bottle of $900 wine you sold to a couple of gangster dudes?”

Brian turns to Lexi to fill her in. “These guys were clearly thugs, and they had money to burn. They looked over our wine list and sniffed at the fact that nothing was over $20. That same afternoon I’d dropped round our sister restaurant a couple of blocks away, Francesco’s. I’d noticed a wine for $900 and I pitched it to these guys. It meant running those dark streets at night, but I brought it back for them, and they not only paid for it at the end of the meal, but they left a quarter of a bottle.”

I know the answer but I feed him the line. “What did you do with it?”

“I drank it!” he roars. 

For the rest of the dinner, conversation grows increasingly esoteric. Well, these two are brilliant, of course, and I struggle, as the klutz who’d poured soup in her back car seat, to keep up with them. I get Brian to explain, as he once had over a piano lesson of my own many years ago, how notes resonate at the same pitch and actually cause other notes of the same pitch — even, theoretically, galaxies away, to resonate also. Brian says, “All spheres create tones. Everything vibrates.”

Lisa discusses her own mode of teaching, which she deems transformational. “A really good musician will integrate the whole human being. Music and piano integrate the brain. A physical component in learning involves all the parts of your brain.”

  1. It isn’t long after this high-powered discussion that I need to move along home, but I make a plan to return the next morning to catch a recording in Brian’s studio of “Inhabit the Garden.” 

Next day, Brian seats me at the controls, and a giant bell clangs. It sounds like sitting directly below a two-ton harbor bell. “What’s that?” I gasp. Brian explains, “It’s a Tibetan singing bowl, amplified.” A cello, violins, and violas chime in, and then, in a recording from the late 1930s, with spectral dignity, T.S. Eliot himself recites from his “Four Quartets” poem, “Burnt Norton”:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.


The poetry blends with an organ, and more explosive peels of the Tibetan singing bowl. By the end of this first segment, I fervently hope there’ll be new performances of this astounding creation, but Brian and Abby are already hard at work on a completely new and unique offering, which they’re calling “The Certainty of Monsters.”

I leave this house of unstoppable creativity with a line from Eliot echoing in my head, “The still point of the turning world.”

And what’s the still point of longtime friendship? It’s just this: It’s the hugs we give one other, with a promise to do better, to try harder, to catch the opening of one another’s shows, to make butternut squash soup, as promised, instead of that other odd Welsh Rarebit thing, then the still point is the love that over-arcs all of our lives. And then some.


  1. Brian! Lisa! So nice to see them, even if only in “print.” My eternal gratitude to Brian for giving me the gift of his piano training, even if I did go and squander it on wayward rock and roll Hammond organ dissipation. Thanks for this, Holly.

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