June 18, 2010

An art installation in NYC: pianos plunked down in 50 different places where anyone can step up and play.

Art is important, but it's not more important the real hour-to-hour life of the people who must live with big and intrusive works of public art. Consider:
The concept, devised by British artist Luke Jerram, has put more than 130 pianos in parks, squares and bus stations since 2008 in cities including London, Sydney and Sao Paulo. And now it's New York City's turn to play, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Thursday.

"There's going to be a huge amount of talent here," Jerram said in an interview. "The piano's actually a blank canvas for everyone's creativity, really, so I just hope that the city enjoys it."
So I just hope.... I just hope, if your apartment or office is within earshot of one of those pianos that you like "Chopsticks," "Für Elise," Billy Joel songs, and the way it sounds when someone drags their fingers the full length of the keyboard. Why do Jerram and Bloomberg think that saccharine everyman "creativity" will blossom? Hey, New Yorkers, have you seen this extremely popular YouTube tutorial — "How to play EXTREMELY annoying songs on piano"?

Oh, why am I so cynical?
Jerram got the idea at his local coin-operated laundry, according to a website about the project. He saw the same people there every weekend, but none of them talked to each other. He thought a piano might help bring people together in places like that.
You know, years ago, when we remodeled the law school building here at the University of Wisconsin, some lawprofs — I won't say who — thought it would be a wonderful idea to put a piano in the atrium — a big open space where the students hang out to talk or rest or study. These professors enthused about the existence of perhaps one student who was an accomplished classical pianist. They imagined bringing people together through the music that would be unleashed from the hulking object. I was horrified. It was one of the few times over the years — and I've been here for a quarter century — when I spoke out and told people — in person — that their well-intended project was unlikely to produce the human happiness they envisioned. (I hope a metaphor alert is unnecessary, but... liberal policies....)
The results in other cities have been surprising and life-changing, [the artist] said in an interview. A woman in Sao Paulo heard her daughter play for the first time on one of Jerram's pianos in a train station. The mother had worked to pay for lessons for four years, but the family had no piano at home.

In Sydney, a couple met at a piano and are now married, Jerram said.
So 4 individuals had a warm experience that they could have had in some other way. But then it wouldn't have pumped up the egos of the artist and the mayor.
"It seems like a good idea that brings a sense of fun and playfulness to the city," said David Rosenfeld, who was riding his bike in the area.
A man on a mechanical device that will scoot him right out of there if somebody's granddad decides to play "Woolly Bully" or "96 Tears."
Most pianos will be open for song until 10 p.m.
Oh, fine then. 10. After your nerves have been jangled for — what? — 14 hours, you can try to settle down to get enough sleep before it all starts again.

At least "Tilted Arc" was quiet.


sykes.1 said...

Art is important, but the modern art world is a world of criminality and fraud. And I mean outright theft fraud. There probably was not a single real artist in the entire 20th century, and there are none now. None.

TosaGuy said...

There is a piano in the food court at the high-end mall near where I live. They frequently hire someone to play it as loud as they can. It's a great way to keep me out of the food court.

I find the piano to be one of the most annoying of instruments. Its fine if its subtle background music or accompanying a singer, but on its own playing at full intensity, I find it harsh and overpowering.

Bill said...

"Tilted Arc" was also a better piece of public art than it got credit for, and an apt visual metaphor in the location it was designed for.

How'd the piano thing work out at U Wisc? Did you get one? Do people play it? Most of the time pianos in places like that are neglected, but sometimes -- at social gatherings and whatnot-- it is nice to have a piano around. (A friend who attended Notre Dame once complained to me that the school had more gyms than pianos. I think that's a legitimate gripe. A university should provide plenty of outlets for all sorts of play, not merely athletics.)

Certainly a piano is preferable to the now ubiquitous flat screen televisions that everyone seems to have gotten grants for.

c3 said...

I played piano throughout childhood and teen years. I was never that good


I learned a much greater appreciation of classical music and the piano. I therefore cannot stand someone, child or adult, pounding on a piano.

People WILL pound on the piano (and yes, "chopsticks" is pounding on the piano)

MadisonMan said...

When I was an undergrad, there was a piano tucked away in the corner of the dorm lobby. I played it all the time, as did one or two of the guys on the floor. We were all decent players -- one person (not me) in particular was really very good. He didn't play nearly enough. It's a great way to release energy and relax.

I don't know how relaxing it was for the other people in the dorm, however, to hear it, but it was different from a stereo blasting ELO or Styx.

If I were a law student, I'd welcome the opportunity to unwind on a piano in the Law Building -- but it might be a little more intrusive on people there.

NYC probably has more classically trained musicians than PSU did -- so it would be interesting to see what would happen.

bagoh20 said...

I like it. If it works, keep it. If not move it. There are probably places where it would work better than others. I do have a warm fantasy about the outcome and the coolness of a success is worth the risk - a risk as old as the mass production of the instrument.

The First Amendment protects the right to "Chopsticks". America belongs to us rubes too, ya know. I would like to see some guy in shorts banging on one of those in Madison, if I ever go there, which I probably will some day just because of this blog.

lyssalovelyredhead said...

I'm not hating the idea, as long as it's in an area where noise would otherwise be expected (BTW, though, if outdoors, isn't it going to be affected by weather?). I don't really adore it, but I'm not a music person. It seems like it would be better than most of what passes as art in public places. Can a piano be modified to dampen the sound? That'd be helpful.

We had a piano in the "reading room" at my undergrad (like the atrium AA described), and it was nice enough, although it mostly sat unused. I had one friend that played sometimes, but I don't remember it being obnoxious or being a social gathering place. (Of course, this was for undergrad honors students of various majors, including music, so it made more sense there than at a law school).

Their idea of the pianos being life-changing is silly. Sure, a couple met, but couples meet in all sorts of ways. As for the woman who had never seen her daughter play- if this had been something she cared about enough to change a life, she would have made arrangments to see her practice sometime.

- Lyssas

rhhardin said...

NYC should place dogs around the city.

MadisonMan said...

One of the reasons I like living on my street is there are so many musicians on it. A lady near me has a grand piano *and* a harpsichord in her living room (!) and it's a rare treat to walk by and listen to her playing. And up the other way, there's a weekly or twice-weekly string quartet that meets, so when you walk by the house with the dog at night, string music comes out the house windows. Aaaah. What a great addition to the summer night. There's also someone playing flute -- I'll be working in the backyard, and I can listen to that, or his neighbor the saxophonist.

Sure beats the whine of lawnmowers.

I think that people who can only play chopsticks would not be at the art installation piano very long. Maybe you'd hear chopsticks a lot, for short durations. But the occasional more enjoyable long piece by someone who knew what they were doing would more than make up for it, IMO. And this is NYC -- it's not like it's going to be quiet with birds chirping otherwise!

Rialby said...

If there is any commodity worth anything of value in those pianos, like copper, they will be stripped bare in days.

lyssalovelyredhead said...

Certainly a piano is preferable to the now ubiquitous flat screen televisions that everyone seems to have gotten grants for.

Ditto. We had a perfectly fine large, non-flat TV in the corner of my law school commons, that usually sat on but unwatched anyway. Then, one year, it was mysteriously replaced with a top of the line flat screen. The same year, we all had a $500 "law enhancement fee" added to our tuition bills.

Quayle said...

This shows they're not serious.

If New York City really wanted to improve the arts in the city, job 1 is to tear down Avery Fischer Hall and rebuild an acoustically competent venue.

paul a'barge said...

You're getting cranky.

HKatz said...

blank canvas for everyone's creativity

To be quieter they could have gone, literally, with blank canvases. Then people could come along and finger-paint; that gets at creativity and enchanting forays into the realm of the inner child. Then they can hang up people's finger paintings in modern art museums, where they'd blend in with the other works. (or maybe someone has done this)

Donna B. said...

I'm not impressed. REAL art would be leaving tubas in public spaces for people to play.

Sarah said...

My law school had a piano in our lounge. It was also the area with a television and our little law school cafe. The piano was there to be used at Sunday Mass, which was also held in the lounge.

In three years, I never heard a single person play that piano outside of Mass. However, I can assure you that, had someone actually attempted to play it, the law student claws would have come out, quickly and ferociously, no matter how well the person played.

Larry J said...

Some years ago, many retail stores carried cheap electronic keyboards. They had display models that people were free to try. It provided quite conclusively that musical talent is a rare and wonderful thing, with emphasis on rare. Most of the time, the noise was annoying to the point of being painful. Just as Karaoke allegedly means "tone deaf" in Japanese and little kids should not be allowed to play with microphones, most people have no ability at playing the piano, myself included.

What's next, drum sets and other loud percussion instruments?

LarsPorsena said...

They need to get those giant keyboards like the one in the movie "Big".
Then everybody can exercise their body as well as their muse.

former law student said...

In my experience, only talented players dare to sit down to a publicly available piano. No one just sits down and bangs out "Chopsticks" if others are around.

My company had an offsite overnight meeting in a hotel with a piano in a common area. While milling about socializing after dinner, one of my colleagues, a Soviet Jew, sat down to the piano and wove a magic spell for a good twenty minutes. (Apparently the Commies had made classical piano training near universal.)

The student union next to the law school also had a piano, next to the cafe that served continuously (the cafeteria served food only at midday). I only heard it played two times, but both times the player clearly knew what he was doing.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

In New York City?

How long before the first piano is tagged by ugly grafitti? Purposely defaced or vandalized?

Over/under says 20 minutes.

T J Sawyer said...

I recall trying to sleep the first night I spent in NYC. I don't see how Chopsticks would be any worse than the taxi horns all night followed by the dawn garbage-can drill.

Lem said...

If somebody wants to play there are piano bars all over Manhattan..

edutcher said...

An interesting exercise in self-expression more fitting for a university psych department, prehaps, but how is this art?

Once again, I have to say modern art isn't.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

In New York City?

How long before the first piano is tagged by ugly grafitti? Purposely defaced or vandalized?

Over/under says 20 minutes.

Try carried off.

Pogo said...

I'm generally opposed, but occasionally, hereabouts, these people show up.

Cuter than Hello Kitty eating sugar.

James M said...

One of the many quirks one will find at Brigham Young University is the placement of a piano in classrooms throughout the campus. This is because the classrooms are used on the weekend for student church meetings. It wasn't too out of the ordinary to walk into class a few minutes early and have someone pounding away at the piano in the corner. Sometimes it was pleasant and soothing. Other times it wasn't.

jeff said...

Sure,why not. Everyone knows Bill Murray from Ground hog day will stop by and then its a party!

Paddy O said...

This is very alienating. Why are piano players emphasized? As an occasional saxophone player I too can offer public music, but the city apparently is privileging those who play a particular instrument. This is nothing short of discrimination based on the happenstance of one's musical training. I insist on a variety of instruments so that each person could utilize the one they know or the one they've always felt drawn towards.

How can I, as a saxophone player, have self-esteem when the city--the city of New York!--continually confronts me with my apparent inadequacy as a piano player?

PatCA said...

We are not a serious civilization any more.

Joe said...

Music can be nice, silence is usually nicer.

AllenS said...

96 Tears was cool when it came out, and it is still cool today.

Richard Dolan said...

The pianos would be vandalized or stolen in under/over 20 minutes, say DBQ and edu. Ha. A post like this always brings out folks with unkind things to say about NYC. It's unlikely that those people have ever lived here for any length of time. Try it; you might like it. I grew up in RedSoxNation (still a loyal citizen too), but have happily been living here for 35 years.

Art in public spaces has a long history in NYC. We've had Serra and similar structures in the parks (works much better there than blocking the entrance to a federal office building); cow sculptures all over the place; Waterfalls, four constructions near the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges; the Arches in Central Park; and on and on. It livens the place up. And, despite Ann's concerns, no one is going to care about a few pianos in public spaces. The MTA already sponsors music in the subway stations, and we have many freelance types (e.g., Mariachi bands, steel drum players, erhu players, Julliard students, singers galore, ...) playing away on subway platforms, sidewalks and trains while looking for donations.

No one is going to notice a few pianos, even if the music making is not always up to Carnegie Hall standards. Folks in fly-over country shouldn't be concerned about crying for us -- we'll do just fine with the pianos.

Christy said...

I find it a charming idea. And this means employment for those who must lock it up every night at 10 and do general maintenance. As a government jobs program we've seen worse.

Henry said...

I want the pianos to be made out of chocolate.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

This also reminds me of the experiment where Johsua Bell plays in a DC Metro stop and hardly anyone stops to listen.

Lem said...

People play all kinds of things, including empty paint buckets as drums, at NYC Subway stations.

They can be very annoying.

Bob said...

I worked at a large luxury-class hotel for a year, and it had a piano in the lobby; it got to the point where, if I saw someone seat themselves at the piano, I'd call out, "No Chopsticks, if you please!"

The management said I had a bad attitude...

HKatz said...

People play all kinds of things, including empty paint buckets as drums, at NYC Subway stations.

They can be very annoying.

Agreed, so it makes me happy to hear the good ones - one time a flautist playing a Mozart concerto really well, another time a good mariachi group :) Some great memories from NYC subways.

c3 said...

Here's my suggestion for an instrument.

Then they could "pound away"

c3 said...

Or maybe this is more NYC?

Cousin Bob said...

Why don't they throw some of 'em outta tall buildings fer Performance Art?

Make sure you got crowded sidewalks first.

Chip Ahoy said...

Ever been in Aspen during the Music Festival? It's de-voon. To walk around the town, music everywhere.

toot toot toot tootie toot TOOT TOOT TOOT TOOTIE TOOT TOOT TOOT TOOT TOOTIE TOOT t-o-o-o-o-o-t.

Big Mike said...

Do I understand that the pianos are set up outdoors, with no shelter from the weather?

They'll be out of tune within a month and every one of them will have a cracked sound board by spring.

Alex said...

This just trivializes and makes a mockery of all those who actually study piano in the quiet of their homes.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

They'll be out of tune within a month and every one of them will have a cracked sound board by spring.

But ....HEY...its Art (with a captial A) you know nothing bumpkin (/snark).

Just like Jimi Hendricks destroying a perfectly good Fender Stratocaster for showmanship.

Or torching a Rolls Royce to show the indifference of the industrial complex towards the working man. (Nevermind that the cost of the Rolls could feed a whole lot of working men, women and children for quite sometime!)

It is ART!!

Aren't you glad that our tax dollars are supporting such worthy ARTISTIC endeavours. I can't think of anything better to throw money at than destroying a bunch of perfectly good musical instruments. (I'm kidding.... just in case someone thinks I'm serious)

Cousin Bob said...

I betcha lot of greenie Noo Yawkahs, who don't wipe their asses so's to save trees, will just walk on by them pianos rotting on the sidewalk without a thought crossing their little fucked up New York minds about wasting all that old growth Sitka, maple, mahogany, not to mention all that high grade metal that took a lotta energy to make.

That's 'cause most people these days, specially people in places like New York, don't know jack shit about making anything, and wouldn't know a board of quartersawn clear wood from a turd.

But they know their turds, and they wouldn't want to waste any trees wiping them.

Pianos? They're made outta, you know, plastic & stuff, and they come from somewhere, probly China. And isn't it cool they're out here where the kids can bang on them and have some fun?

Cousin Bob said...

That's why I say chuck 'em outta tall buildings.

Makes much better Performance Art. Specially if those pianos are going to hell, they can take a few New Yorkers with 'em.

AllenS said...

Every once in a while someone can get away with it, but most times pianos are gay.

former law student said...

for those fearing vandalism -- what happened to the 500 fiberglass cows decorated and placed throughout NYC ten years ago?

Vandalized, graffitied, or left alone?

k*thy said...

We've got one in the med school atrium and it's quite a treat when someone sits down to play. I've never heard chopstix, always someone who's quite good.

AllenS said...

Pianos gave us Liberace, Elton John and Jerry Lee Lewis. We all know about the first two, and yet, when you get to the straight guy, he's banging his 13 year old cousin.

Pianos are evil.

Bad, bad, bad.

his-regard said...

Dust Bunny Queen:
In New York City?

How long before the first piano is tagged by ugly grafitti? Purposely defaced or vandalized?

If it's purposely vandalized correctly, that's art (of noise).

Trooper York said...

"former law student said...
for those fearing vandalism -- what happened to the 500 fiberglass cows decorated and placed throughout NYC ten years ago?

Vandalized, graffitied, or left alone?"

Actually about 200 of them were pregnant when they got back home.

Trooper York said...

This is just another example of Nanny Bloomberg doing his best to destroy the city based on his elitest tastes.

Just like the moronic "parks" which he set up in the most heavily trafficed cross streets in New York.

Nanny Bloomberg is the worst mayor in America.

He is just a rich guy and he don't give a shit.

Iapetus said...

Mayor Bloomie doesn't realize that "America's Got Talent" has already finished its auditions in New York and has moved on.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

for those fearing vandalism

I don't fear it. I expect it.

Actually, some grafitti artist are really Artists (with a capital A). They just need to get their own canvases and leave the public's property alone.

vw: rebumm. went from being a bum to businessman and then a bum again.

JAL said...

Each of the 60 pianos to be installed throughout New York has its own attendants responsible for its care. That involves unlocking the keyboard at 9 a.m. every day and deploying a heavy tarp over the instrument if it rains.

Google (or Bing or whatever) it in previous places, previous years.


They are older pianos. People are encouraged to decorate them, and it looks like these people, at least, are having fun.

Y'all are a bunch of cynics, guys.

Cheer up! Obama in a one term president, and maybe we'll let some of the dozen countries who he's dissed by rejecting their offers to help clean our gulf and ocean up will be allowed to help by next year.

wv fautt
Obama: "It's not my fautt."

Kirk Parker said...

Surely you need to add "Heart and Soul" to that list.

Amy said...

The cancer center where I received treatment was a state of the art brand new building with an atrium entrance that had a grand piano in it. They had volunteers (who seemed to be mostly retired folks) come in and play. The plan was, I think, to have relaxing music wafting through the several floors of the building. Instead, I continuously heard heart-break, tear-jerking songs being played with great pathos. One time I was sitting and waiting for a blood draw (the results of which were very important) and the pianist was playing "Yesterday." I just sat and sobbed. I hated that piano! I complained and the administrator told me that the instructions to the volunteers were to play only light upbeat music - like show tunes (which have their own set of problems), but that the volunteers wouldn't heed the guidelines.

When the center opened a new wing, I only used that alternate front door and didn't have to subject myself to the piano any more. What a relief.

Hate public pianos.