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Pianos take to the London streets!

July 10, 2009

My first encounter with a street piano was a somewhat hurried one – I was rushing to Tate Modern and just before Millenium Bridge I saw this piano, and a couple shily approaching it and trying a few notes. Quirky, I thought, puts a smile on your face. But alas, I was late, and I moved on.

My second encounter with a street piano, the same street piano, was on the way back. Now there was a packed audience surrounding a guy in his twenties who was showcasing his talent. I was with friends and we seemed to all decide not to join the audience, whether because there were too many people or because it felt a little too ego-stroking for the pianist I don’t know, but we carried on. We walked through St. Paul’s gardens and noticed that there was another piano there! Although another couple was playing it, my friend Hristo wanted to have a go and the location seemed a lot more intimate, so we waited for our turn and got to enjoy his interpretation of the Turkish Rondo. The warden of the gardens told us he was about to close but that he would give us some time while he was locking other gates, which made us feel very privileged.

Playing in St. Paul's garden

Playing in St. Paul's garden

Once home I decided to find out more about this piano invasion – it seemed to be for a City of London festival but there was little information on the instruments themselves. It turns out that the street pianos are an art project by Luke Jerram, and they have already landed in São Paulo, Sydney and Birmingham. A website is in place for people to share photos and comments and to document the lives of the pianos, which will eventually be donated to schools.

I was glad to find out that the project was conceived as an artwork of sorts rather than as a council’s community project with the ultimate aim of improving community cohesion. The idea of communities coming together is of course central to this work regardless, but I got the impression from the website that what also mattered a lot to the artist was the spontainety of the act, and I loved that. I love how you may walk past the pianos initially on the way to work, rushing like I was the first time, and then suddenly decide that you’re going to stop and play, or listen, instead. It’s one of those indulgences, so rare nowadays in chaotic London life, an indulgence that brings no calories, no stress, no money spending.

A lot of the pianists I heard seemed not to have played in a while, probably because not many people can afford a flat big enough to put a piano in in London, and hearing some stumbles made me think of summer afternoons in Italy, when diligent piano students play with open windows and the sound floods in the streets. Part of it is also, of course, the emotive power that music itself holds, but I couldn’t help loving the street pianos’ sense of spontaneity, of intimacy, and their invitation to lose yourself in thoughts of other places and times. I was definitely a supporter of the idea.

But then what happened is that I passed by the Millenium Bridge one more time, on another day, and saw another side of the street pianos, one I didn’t like as much. A little girl was playing some exercises, surrounded by an encouraging crowd. On the other side of the street, a bit further away, there was an old man with a violin, busking. The contrast couldn’t have been starker: the pretty girl on one side, an old and scruffled man in a wheelchair on the other. The way the crowd was blissfully ignoring the busker, in favour of a girl playing very basic tunes, showed that not all about this project is to be loved. Street pianos do bring communities together, but communities can remain as impenetrable as ever for some members of society.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. severnyproductions permalink
    July 10, 2009 13:00

    It is great when walking down the street and you see a busker. Ot makes you walk so interesting

  2. itsasmallworldafterallfamily permalink
    July 10, 2009 14:36

    It’s interesting to hear your views on the pianos. Thanks for dropping in on my blog!

  3. citylifeandneonsigns permalink
    July 13, 2009 05:54

    Hi Eleonora!

    Thanks for visiting my Blog. Much appreciated your honest take on London’s Street Pianos. Contrasting as it may seem, hopefully the joy of music remains – for everyone! Have a great day!

  4. Hristo permalink
    July 23, 2009 20:35

    Ciao Ele,
    questo è in assoluto il primo commento che lascio su un blog…sono onorato di avere una foto di me nel tuo articolo! Quando avró una casa grande e un pianoforte ti inviteró ad ascoltare la marcia alla turca. Come sta andando la tua lotta a facebook? A presto

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