The piano on the sidewalk doesn’t make any attempt to blend in with the bustling city surroundings. Its bright pink exterior bristles with wild fur that surpasses many of the hip and trending hairstyles in both eccentricity and brilliance of color. Above its dense mane bobbles a cluster of orbs resembling eyeballs and from underneath grins a slightly alien face that bears eighty-eight black and white keys for teeth. Please play me, a sign on its back pleads. Heads turn as people walk by and ask, what is that? The instrument is located outside the Portland Art Museum; it’s probably one of those weird modern sculptures. Only when someone is curious enough to sit down and fulfill the polite request by testing the keys do people realize: oh… it’s a piano.
Mary Lou, as this pink furry instrument is affectionately named, is only one of many pianos that Piano. Push. Play. has placed around Portland. The project, founded by Megan McGeorge in 2012, is focused on building community and challenging perspectives through music, specifically through accessibility to public pianos. With the help of local piano companies, visual art designers, musicians, and the greater Portland community, the project team members “rescue pianos and put them on the street for everybody to enjoy.” Piano. Push. Play. breaks musical boundaries by freeing the instruments from their traditional residences in living rooms, concert halls, and practice rooms to “give pianists more opportunities to play for the public.” And the term “pianist” leaves ample room for interpretation. Whether day or night, weekday or weekend, these pianos are for Portland and anyone – everyone – who wants to play. Even the project’s name emphasizes the simplicity of their mission: Here is a piano. Push a key. Yes, you too can play the instrument!
The pianos themselves are works of art, inside and out. Once they rescue instruments that are in disrepair but still playable, visual artists transform their surfaces with swirls of paint and other materials to invent a uniquely charming character for each one. Amy, who sits outside the visitor center at Powell Butte Park, is elegantly dressed in “bright gold rococo-inspired details on a dark, dusty blue to shine like stars in the midnight sky.” Katy Towell Design’s passion for fairy tales and antiques inspired this theme, which fittingly mirrors the starry night skies that twinkle and glimmer above the park. Dorothea graces the center of Lownsdale Square with depictions of Ancient Greece. The wooden, splintering construction is painted with an illusion of marble, which looks so realistic that we are surprised when it is not cool to the touch. Artist Charlie White completed the look with depictions of historic female figures: “the caryatids from ancient Greek pillars that support the structure of the massive buildings; the amphora — vessels of all variations used throughout Europe in that period of antiquity and meant to hold, serve, store and ship liquid or dry goods,” and a water naiad whose dainty feet emerge as pedals at the base of the instrument. Each instrument is named after a female musician: Amy Beach composed large-scale works and was an acclaimed pianist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; Dorothea Banner was a composer of electronic and computer-generated music and served as an esteemed professor; and Mary Lou Williams (pictured above), the multi-talented jazz pianist, vocalist, and composer, mentored and taught many jazz stars including Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. These examples are only the beginning; each of the project’s twenty pianos is an artistic gem with a history and namesake of its very own.
Though each piano sports a one-of-a-kind exterior, their request called out to passers-by is always the same: Please play me! They do not differentiate between professional musician and novice, dexterous and bungling fingers, perfectly pitched and tone deaf ears. In fact, by extending the same invitation without discrimination, Piano. Push. Play. demands that we reconsider who musicians can be. Megan recalls a moment of reevaluating her own preconceptions: “I remember that no sooner had we placed a piano on the bus mall last fall, a group of young boys went skateboarding down the street and one of them stopped, walked over, sat down and started playing Für Elise. In a short three seconds my perspective on who this kid was flipped 180 degrees, and I try to remember that same feeling whenever I interact with people as I go about my everyday life in Portland. I remember that you never know what’s lying underneath a person.”
Portland is a city of people as well as physical spaces, and Megan sees the project as an opportunity to transform our interpretations of both: “That street corner is no longer just a street corner. It is a living room where you’re enjoying/experiencing the creation of music right in front of you and seeing a side to someone you wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise.” It’s a moment worthy of a little fairy dust, as fantastic as the metamorphosis from decrepit piano to interactive sculpture. In fact, Megan describes the music with a similar sense of awe: “We believe that by exposing people to the visual and auditory experience of the piano, we are reminded of how magical and vital music is.”
The magic doesn’t vanish at the end of the summer. The pianos will be relocated once again, finding new homes in community centers and schools. The perpetual rain of Portland is not exactly nourishing for these mechanically intricate creations, but this does not hinder them from year-long music making. They will continue to play and be seen and heard indoors, brought to life by the community. It’s music of the people, by the people, for the people, sustained by these unconventional contraptions of wood, paint, keys, hammers, strings, and sometimes, a touch of pink fur. Magic, indeed.
All quotes from Megan McGeorge and Piano. Push. Play. are directly from their website, www.pianopushplay.com.
Piano. Push. Play. places instruments all around the city, indoors and outdoors, from parks to rooftops to high school cafes. You can find the pianos’ current locations by downloading and checking this handy app. Their Facebook and Twitter pages are also frequently updated with videos, photos, news about locations, and even upcoming events. But hurry! The pianos will be out for only a couple more days, wrapping up with a farewell concert this Friday, August 26th at 7 PM outside the Portland Art Museum. What are you waiting for? Go play.