Speaking of fun in music (well, I was, on my last posting), here’s a crazy idea: take a bunch of old rickety pianos, rebuild them, tune them, have local artists paint them, and set them out on the sidewalks downtown for anyone who happens by to play them. That’s what the city of Everett, WA, did for a couple weeks (starting about two weeks ago)…
Artist Evalia Sanchez putting the finishing touches on one of the Everett pianos (from the Everett city newspaper website).
I first heard about this project on KUOW radio. Various snafus kept me from actually going to check it out until the last day (8/24/2011) – car repair, among others – but finally I managed to get there. I only found two of the pianos. I think the others had already been removed.
I once played a painted piano before. It was a concert grand, painted with a thick layer of opaque white. It looked like something someone would play while wearing a tux and a dented top hat, in a parody of a Broadway show. It sounded like a parody of a piano. The white paint completely prevented the wood from resonating, and all sound died the second it was produced (even worse, because the lid was nailed down). I gave up after a minute or two.
So I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sound quality when I sat down at the “Leopard Lounge” piano on Hoyt street. But, I thought, why not – these pianos are in the street, after all, and one isn’t really expecting concert-hall acoustics. All in all, it wasn’t too bad (better than the white concert grand). I played a couple of pieces, mostly my own, including a version of Soundform III which uses the iPod backup. Then I came up with an improvisation which surprised me – I started atonal (hey, gotta make my avant-garde statement even when being a street musician!) then somehow transitioned into a long series of tremelos and trills, slowly alternating between G minor and C major 6th chords. At some point the B-flat from the G minor leaked over into the C, and the E from the C major into the G minor, and the whole think went modal in a completely unexpected way. (Or perhaps not entirely unexpected – it worked in much the same manner as some of Somei Satoh’s pieces for piano with delay unit.) Eddies and currents broke off from the main structure, and slowly it all inched its way up to the highest register of the piano. I liked it so much that I played something like it again at an open mike at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater two days later; there, I added some humor by hammering on the highest “C” on the piano at the end for several seconds. The audience seemed to love it.
The "Leopard Lounge" piano, painted by Janet Wold.
Anyway, there was something disappointing about the street pianos – I had expected lots of people to be there playing, filling the air of downtown Everett with the sounds of boogie-woogie and Mozart and other piano music (besides the traffic); but no one was there. A couple of people ambled by while I was playing, paused to listen for a minute or two, then continued on their way. There was a street musician playing a homemade marimba a couple of blocks away. Other than that, no other music. Maybe this is because I went on the last day…?