Saturday, July 03, 2010

I Love A Piano

There are few aural experiences like walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Almost every bar or restaurant has some kind of live band, playing everything from blues to zydeco. Stop in front of any one, and you can listen to a specific song; walk on and it fades away only to be replaced by the next. The closest parallel is twisting the tuning knob on an old radio from station to station, except there is no static between the selections.

Walking down the street in New York is hardly the same thing. Yes, there are a myriad of sounds competing for your attention, and they do blend from one to the next. But rather than music, it’s more likely to be subways or construction or traffic. Few make you stop and take notice, save the siren that is obviously coming your way.

So as I walked uptown on Broadway I was pleasantly surprised to faintly hear the sound of a piano working its way through the din. The more I walked, the more pronounced it became, a sound that was obviously coming from a real instrument and not from a recording. It seemed to be emanating from the little vest pocket park I could see up ahead nestled among the approaches to the Holland Tunnel, but that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But actually it did. As I got closer, I could see not one, but two upright pianos sitting back to back with a cluster of people around them. At one was a young lady busy playing a piano rag; at the other, a little kid was picking out single notes. Neither instrument was new: one was a natural color, the other had sort of a decoupage design on it. Steel cables anchored them to a fence, and each had some plastic laminated sheet music perched above the keys. And both bore a decal that said "Play Me, I’m Yours."

Turns out that Play Me I'm Yours is is a public art project first staged in Birmingham, England, and the creation of British artist Luke Jerram. Jerram wrote that every time he went to his local launderette, "I saw the same people there each weekend and yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realized that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence. I hoped that placing a piano into the space would act as a catalyst for conversation."

But it’s a big step from one piano between the washers and dryers to 60 spread around the city. The germ of the bigger idea grew out of a disaster with another of his projects. "Sky Orchestra is a performance artwork of mine that involves playing music in surround sound from 7 hot air balloons at dawn. In 2007 we were commissioned to perform over Birmingham. We all turned up to perform but got the weather prediction wrong and it was too windy to fly. We had to pay all the pilots and musicians for this failed attempt and had no artwork to show for it. With most of the budget blown, I had to think of a new artwork in just 3 weeks. Play Me, I’m Yours is that artwork."

Since its first appearance in Birmingham in 2008, he has staged it around the world in such cities as Sao Paulo, London and Barcelona, and this year will include Belfast, Cincinnati, and Pécs, the fifth largest city in Hungary among others. In each, volunteers are enlisted to look after the pianos, unlocking them at 9AM and closing them up at 10PM, as well as covering them if it rains. Beside that, there is no restriction. Photos on the project’s website show people playing them, singing next to them, even doing handstands on them.

As for me, I found a spot under a tree, and listened for a while. After a bit, the young lady moved on and kid got called by his mother to head home. I had to catch a train as well, so got up and headed uptown. I hadn’t even gotten out of the park when I heard more music behind me. It took me a few moments to identify the opening notes of Elton John’s "Funeral for a Friend." I smiled and keep walking as it faded out. But no worry; I changed my route and headed towards Astor Place, where I was hoping to find another.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always wanted to play piano. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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