The Piano At The Center Of The Universe
Imagine a snowglobe. Inside is the sturdy, baroque Mozarteum alongside the delicate, tree-lined Mirabell Gardens. This is Salzburg, Austria, 1958. But it could just as well be 1858.
Now give the globe a shake.
The snow falls gently on a young couple, newly married, sitting on a park bench quite smitten with each other and with what they have stumbled upon. A solo violinist has come out to play from a third floor balcony of the Mozarteum. Then, a few balconies away, a cellist emerges and picks up the tune. Eventually the plaintive tones of a clarinet make it a trio. Already enthralled the newlyweds are not expecting that serendipity still has a trump card to play: a mezzo soprano, from another building, adds an aria that drifts down as if carried on the snowflakes.
Whatever we call it we seem fascinated by the magic that occurs when serendipity meets music where we least expect it.
They are enchanted. They are my parents. And it is a story that has been retold in our family many times; usually with them editing one another and auto-filling each other’s sentences. Such are shared narratives after nearly 60 years of marriage.
They remember applauding. They remember how they felt. But they still struggle in finding words that capture the moment. “It was spontaneous and inspiring,” recalls my dad. My mother throws in “beautiful and impressive”. It’s not that they are at a loss for words, it’s that we really don’t have a vocabulary adequate to capture moments such as these.
Whatever we call it we seem fascinated by the magic that occurs when serendipity meets music where we least expect it. It is ineffable. It is delightful. And, like my parents before me, I’ve just found it.
Of Wine, Faux Leather, And Some Delight …
Blue Lake, California—just 15 miles northeast of Eureka—is a bit of an enigma. It’s a sleepy, former logging town of just over a thousand people, yet it has a bustling casino. There actually is no lake—blue or otherwise—but the Mad River passes nearby. And downtown—if you can call 2 or 3 intersections ‘downtown’—has a piano…on the sidewalk…for anyone to play. It was put there by longtime resident Barbara Russell. I meet her bottling wine a half block from the piano at the Blue Lake Winery. She’s being paid in wine and she reads a Shakespeare quote on the wine label for me:
“How shall we beguile the lazy time if not with some delight”
Makes sense for a wine label. I like that it is written in the form of a rhetorical question. I ask Barbara if she thinks the quote applies to the piano outside her kitchen window. “Yes. Entirely,” she says without hesitating. “When we have the time to relax, to listen, and pluck away and make music that is why the piano is outside. Just hoping that something magical will happen.”
After the wine is bottled a group meanders over to the corner of G Street and Railroad Avenue where magic is about to happen. A piano-playing plumber who goes by ‘Lizard’ has skooched the bench up to play. Both the piano and Lizard have a look: Lizard with a braided beard and the piano mostly encased in faux leather. “I love to play piano,” says Lizard. “And I was so happy to find this piano on the street. And I’m going to play this song called ‘Ophelia’ by The Band.”
As the Dixie riff fills the street I can see what happens to people when they hear unexpected, impromptu, live music outside an established musical venue. First, comes a mixed look of disorientation and curiosity. This is quickly followed by a smile (it helps if the music is good and, let me tell you, Lizard can play). Finally—and this is the part I love—you see people revert to a childlike joy right before your eyes. It could have been the wine but I don’t think so.
The Art of Stopping, Listening & Interacting
This past summer had you been in Minneapolis, Paris, New York, Vancouver, Des Moines, Golden Gate Park, Hong Kong, Florence, or Perth—to name just a few places—you might have heard a public piano being played. Many may have been part of the 7-year-old “Come Play Me, I’m Yours” project which was started by British artist Luke Jerram as a “catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of space”.
I've been to the Center of the Universe and it's a sewer cover.
Or you may have been closer to home. Four years ago, while still a music student, Megan McGeorge started rescuing old upright pianos in Portland and placing them in public spaces. Her motivation was straight forward: potential music should not end up in a dump, the pianos should be rehabilitated, painted by artists, shared publicly, and once rainy season kicked in they should be donated to organizations that needed them. Now “Piano Push Play” as it is known, has over a dozen pianos scattered around the city and even an App to locate them.
“It’s a sentimental thing,” says Megan, who now scores music and continues to play both the piano and French horn. “So many people have a connection to this instrument somehow or someway. And a lot of people play but don’t have access to a piano. But one of my favorite things is watching the audience. Seeing them take a moment. You see the music getting people to interact with some song or person they usually wouldn’t interact with.”
The Center Of The Universe
The Blue Lake piano has me thinking about interaction. It’s a small town, after all. I wonder what the town thinks about the piano. I’m betting it can easily be heard by half the town. I’m also betting the local bar is where I will find answers. But I find more than I bargained for. I should have known.
One block down from Barbara’s piano are two venerated Blue Lake institutions: The Dell’Arte School of Physical Theater and The Logger Bar. The former is world famous. The latter is world famous in Humboldt County.
Last year Dell’Arte helped the city secure a public arts grant which, amongst other things, helped designate a sewer cover on Railroad Avenue as the ‘Center of the Universe’. It’s one block down from Barbara Russell’s public piano, and between the Odd Fellows Hall were Dell’Arte is based, and The Logger Bar, one of California’s oldest continuously running saloons.
I’m on a barstool looking out the front door of The Logger with owner Kate Martin. We can almost see the piano from where we are sitting and I’m hoping she’ll give me her two cents worth. But Blue Lake doesn’t seem to work that way.
“That IS the center of the universe,” she says, pointing out to the town’s empty main intersection. “I think it’s just the magnetic vortex of the world. It actually ends up right there in the middle of that sewage cover … (a cat jumps up on a nearby barstool and meows) …and this is Kevin. Kevin the Cat. He just showed up here and hasn’t left. I think he’s a reincarnated customer because he likes to be on the barstools.”
Down the bar I find actor Cooper Lee Smith who just graduated with his Master of Fine Arts from Dell’Arte. He’s what locals call a “Dell’Artian”, and I ask him if he doesn’t think the whole ‘center of the universe’ thing is a touch pretentious.
“I’ve never seen it as pretentious,” he says without pause, as if questions about the umbilicus of the universe were as blasé as a Budweiser.
“And I think part of it is I know it’s not saying that we are the most important or that Blue Lake is the be-all-end-all. First of all it has a spirit of humor and of joy. And so immediately I love that I can look at that and laugh. But also, once again it ties back to community for me. It’s less the location and more the spirit of this place that gives it the ability to call itself the ‘Center of the Universe’.”
Spirit Is Something That No One Destroys
So now I can say this: “I’ve been to the Center of the Universe and it’s a sewer cover. There are actors and adult beverages there. The cats are reincarnated barflies. A block away there is a piano: 88 black and white keys that can shine with a multitude of colors.”
( I know the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle also claims to be the Center of the Universe. They proudly feature a Troll and Lenin and even a signpost. But no sewer cover. So their claim lacks gravitas doesn’t it?)
I walk the one block from the Center of the Universe back to the piano. Lizard is now playing Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys”. The smiling faces gathered around the piano, Lizard’s passionate playing, and the lyrics convince me this probably IS the center of the universe; at least the one I’m faced with today.
If I gave you everything that I owned and asked for nothing in return
Would you do the same for me as I would for you?
Or take me for a ride, and strip me of everything including my pride
But spirit is something that no one destroys
And the sound that I’m hearing is only the sound
The low spark of high-heeled boys
I almost miss the line… “but spirit is something that no one destroys” … and ask Lizard to repeat it. I ask what it means to him. He says this:
“‘I think of Martin Luther King as the spirit of something that no one destroys and music is something that can keep the spirit coming back. And there are echoes from long ago. People that are long gone return. Music is part of the echoing of the spirit of people long gone.”
Music does echo. We have songs stuck in our head from this morning and songs that link us directly to distant memories. Usually we seek out music on our own terms … choosing the time, place and style. But sometimes music finds us, and when it is unexpected—like a piano on a sidewalk—it seems to affect us in a very unique way. What exactly that is I can only say for myself: for me unexpected public music is a shared beauty. A brief bloom rendered all the more precious because it is fleeting. For that moment we truly are at the center of our own little universe.
I try to communicate this ethereal appeal to Barbara Russell but fail miserably. I ask her what the public piano means to her. Why she put it out there in the first place. How she thinks it affects the extemporaneous artists and the fortuitous audience. She sees it like this:
“What does the piano do? I just think the piano brings good energy. It brings the possibility of song. And I think that music is something that cuts right through any differences and barriers and just makes people’s hearts sing. And that’s got to be a great thing right?”
A Universe Of Public Pianos
Piano. Push. Play You can see the named pianos and the variety of ways they are decorated by Portland artists. There are some sweet stories in the link to Megan’s blog. With the featured App you can not only find the pianos but they will introduce themselves!
Play Me, I’m Yours Eight million people, 1,400 pianos, and 47 countries later, this project started by Luke Jerram in 2008 could be considered the grand daddy of public piano programs. This site is full of fun videos and an equally fascinating ‘stories’ section.
Pianos on Parade Like many public piano programs this one out of the Midwest focuses on ‘artistically transformed’ pianos and reaching out to children. Don’t miss the very inspiring photo section!
75 Pianos—Documentary (11 minutes) When the “Play Me, I’m Yours” project came to Boston in 2013 and intrepid pianist decided he would play a song at all 75 pianos. This short film does well in capturing the unique atmosphere that makes public pianos so compelling.
Michael Joyce is a multimedia journalist based in Humboldt County, California. It’s unclear which he prefers more: boogie-woogie piano or Mozart. Michael can’t even play chopsticks but he can eat with them.