[Scent? And salt of course.]
The wooden crate sits, alone and abandoned, at the water’s edge. Ada runs across the sand and removes the packing to liberate the piano within. She begins to play, lush and expressive music, with agile arpeggios supporting an antique-sounding, folk-like melody. Ada’s hands dance over the keys, lithe and powerful. In case the sound itself does not signal this to us, the director makes sure to show us her face, which is ecstatic, even beatific. We know from the beginning of the film that the piano is her refuge, and even her voice, for she is mute.
Ada plays through the day and the evening. Her daughter Flora joins in on the upper end of the keyboard for a bit, tapping out youthful, staccato imitations of the swelling patterns down below. Their guide, Baines, paces thoughtfully.
But . . . something doesn’t sound quite right.
This is a Broadwood square piano, crafted in London in the early to mid-nineteenth century, with a label declaring the company “manufacturers to Her Majesty.” This noble instrument has been torn from its comfortable Glasgow home, boxed up, subjected to incessant rocking in a ship traveling over the open ocean, doused with spray and salt, only to land on sand and still be besieged by waves rolling across the sand, and, quite rudely, over its tired wooden legs—and even then, only to be left there by Ada’s new husband Stewart. And who knows what other indignities it may have suffered on the beach in Ada’s absence!
The abandoned piano, deposited on the expanse of beach, unable to take shelter from the elements, makes a poignant and striking image in Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano. This imagery has become canonical.
So, what is it that seems out of place? Only that the piano sounds . . . good. Not as in, “so bad it’s good,” or “good considering the circumstances,” or “a good illustration of what a soggy and out-of-tune piano would sound like in New Zealand in 1851”—just, simply, good. As if the music had been recorded in a studio on a Steinway grand with really sophisticated microphones and an expert engineer, not here in the beautifully staged scene on the beach.
To be sure, it is not out of a hunger for realistic, unaltered representation of everyday life that we go to the cinema. (Nowadays, we have our phones and social media for that.) The filmmakers’ choices are neither outlandish nor unusual; they lie firmly within established conventions for placing music alongside moving images. Another facet is the temporal placement of this music cue. It is also not realistic, but a viewer is unlikely to be perturbed by the fact that Ada’s music begins to sound before she even reaches the piano. This sort of blur between onscreen performance and soundtrack is something spectators have been taught to accept within the artifice of film. In fact, in this context, using more realistic sounds would have been distracting and displeasing. The Piano inaccurately portrays the sound the instrument onscreen would make, in terms of both its construction and its condition. The filmmakers gives us the “wrong” piano, but it is the right piano for The Piano.
To state the obvious: the pristine, clean, professionally produced audio recording is not something Ada would have had handy in 1851. If the film had been made in 1851—well, I guess I’ll just stop there. We do not expect the film to look like it was made in 1851, nor do we expect it sound that way, even though Ada’s music is the primary focus of the narrative.
Even as the viewer accepts the artifice of the filmmaking, the way the piano is portrayed within the film will affect how the film works on the viewer. One will react differently when the music is sanitized and idealized than she will when the soundtrack reveals the imperfections the pianist would reckon with. If one is so moved as to swoon at the spectacle of the piano vulnerable on the beach, one might also be curious to hear what such vulnerability sounds like.
Oddly, it is after this scene, when the piano has in fact been brought to a character’s home, that the piano tuner arrives. At this point I do have to wonder whether the filmmakers are trolling us viewers. The tuner observes, “Scent? And salt of course.” If only we could hear the piano he hears.
[no strings attached]
And one true curmudgeon:
I,d rather just hear it above water like a normal sane and logical person [Sidewinder Sid]
If only we could hear the piano underwater—with or without strings.
[Darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter.]
The dramatic expansion of the role of video in everyday life, coupled with the increased accessibility of recording equipment (traditional or newfangled), seems to have encouraged an effusion of piano/ocean encounters. Some pianists walk the talk, haul the beast, and play piano right on location. For example, Nathaniel Sheets has posted a number of novelty videos shot in different locations. These include “PIANO on the BEACH,’ in which he plays (fittingly) “Under the Sea,” from The Little Mermaid.
Here there is a functioning piano installed on the beach, with a performer playing. However, the music is still an isolated track. The camera moves freely, from one position on the beach to another, and even overhead at a distance. But as the positions change, the acoustic of the music stays the same, whether at a bird’s-eye view or a close-up on the edge of the poignantly worn keys. The disjunction is most striking in a drone shot that tracks a wave: the wave offers no sound, and the piano sound remains unchanged. This sort of maneuver is familiar from music video, where the real-life sounds accompanying the images are removed and replaced by the soundtrack. (Compare this to the mix of The Piano, where the sounds of waves and footsteps stay in the mix. It would be jarring if they were absent.)
Sheets’s other videos advertise themselves by location as well, becoming increasingly virtuosic over time: the winsome “PIANO in a CREEK” (2018) is followed by “I played piano ON the TITANIC” (2019), which incorporates a string quartet and again makes use of a separate soundtrack of high quality and consistent acoustic. This past year brought a trip to an even more distant past: “I PLAYED the piano AT NOAH’S ARK” (2022). While Sheets’s videos have enjoyed rapid progress in production values, a comment at the end of the earlier beach video calls attention to the various challenges of oceanside piano performance. He gives a commentary on the demands of on-location video production, emphasizing the labor involved in moving the piano. He calling attention to his project’s modest budget and resulting “mistakes,” saying “We’re not The Piano Guys.’
And right on cue, The Piano Guys appear oceanside, playing “Over the Rainbow” and “Simple Gifts” on Oahu, Hawaii.
The YouTube description here also calls attention to the physical and meteorological demands of the performance: “Getting a piano onto a sandy beach and then onto a big hill in a famous ranch within the SAME day (we only had 8 hours to film) was no small feat. The only thing harder would be to be predict Hawaiian weather, which ended up being our biggest challenge.” Although the description does credit the recording engineer and does acknowledge the name of the studio, the commentary declines to call attention to the audio-recording aspect of the production.
While some viewers may suspend disbelief and happily watch an imaginary live performance on the sand and cliffs, even a moderately attentive viewing will reveal the artifice. Once more, the acoustic is too good and too consistent to have been captured alongside the video image; in addition, there are more tracks on the audio than we see. When I sent the link to a friend, he texted, “Was waiting for the orchestra to come out of the water. lol”
Why combine an impeccably produced studio audio recording with an impossible nature scene? Or vice-versa?
The rapid and pronounced increase in accessibility of video recordings has had a profound effect on how listeners consume music—and on what listeners and viewers expect from musicians. (The requirements of the Covid pandemic also intensified the demand for video.) Some musicians release videos of themselves recording in the studio, even showing their headphones and separation from one another. This exposes the reality of the recording situation, and in watching a continuous performance, the viewer knows that the music has been edited and mixed afterward. Another way to make music into video is to combine a studio recording of a music track to related or unrelated still images or videos. Much of this happens outside the control of the musicians, as fans post videos online, or even as Apple TV starts playing images along with music, as if the sounds are not enough.
A slickly produced video set on the beach in Oahu seems to negotiate and harmonize different possibilities and expectations. This form of “artifice in nature” allows for a carefully produced audio track (crucially, not a live, on-site recording) to meet up with the musician’s own mimicry of himself—of what he did in the studio. Viewers are already so accustomed to moving images and sounds being independent or unrealistic that this does not grate. As in the case of The Piano, a realistic plein-air recording, most likely, would be off-putting.
It is quite an undertaking to schlepp a Yahama concert grand to the beach in order to record just the visuals for a four-minute track, especially when the pianist frequently limits himself not just to one hand, but even to one note at a time. As much effort as goes into these musical performances, the moving of the pianos, and the separate audio and video recording, there is something wistful about them: the performers are almost always alone—within the frame, at least.
If only we could hear “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the beach.
[surely to the sea]
Pianos on beaches are often described as “surreal.” This is rendered more so by the status of pianos, culturally and financially. At the same time that technological developments make it easier to record musical performances on beaches, which inspires musicians to undertake the old-school physical labor of carting them–“Watch your fingers!“—acoustic pianos have depreciated to the point where they sometimes accrue negative value. Anyone who has tried to sell their spinet or upright on NextDoor has found that it’s easy to end up without a sale. One may even need to spend money to have a perfectly good piano taken away. (I once had to hire someone to chop up my beloved, aged console with an axe.) Surely some of these bereft instruments are the ones that end up on beaches, in creeks, and on city streets, where the phenomenon of the “public piano” has flourished.
And while developments in recording technology (both audio and video) have enabled more individuals to record on-site performances, this is happening at the same time as the proliferation of portable electronic pianos (which can play on batteries). These are good enough that some use them for performances. Yet it is the old-school piano, not the more portable one, that lounges on the beach.
What is it about pianos that inspires their stewards to bake them in the sun and pantomime a version of music they already recorded, when their listeners/viewers know it has been assembled in Adobe Premiere Pro? What makes us want to see pianos in unlikely, inconvenient places? If we want to make music on the beach, it’d be easier to bring a guitar. Maybe a drum or two. And the voice is easy to carry, for it weighs nothing.
[willing to go further]
Chain a ship’s anchor to the back leg of a grand piano.
Set the piano at the high tide mark, lid raised.
Leave it there until it vanishes.
—Annea Lockwood, Southern Exposure
This is the score to Annea Lockwood’s Southern Exposure, which is the fifth in her series of Piano Transplants. The composer situates instruments in outdoor locations, allowing the elements, environment—and people—to act on them. The series began with the “permanently-prepared piano” Lockwood constructed in 1966. This was “an upright with strings, hammers and mechanism exposed, which I attached things to, drilled holes in, cut a mouth shape in the side with large red lips through which a tube device blew bubbles whenever the soft pedal was used.”
In an interview with Irene Revell, Lockwood observed that the prepared piano presented a limitation, noting that John Cage, inventor of the prepared piano “always had to be very careful not to damage the piano.” She wondered, “what can you do when you’re willing to go further?” She proceeded to the startling work Piano Burning (1968), in which—yes—she set a piano on fire. This was followed by Piano Garden (1969-70), which sets the piano amidst growing trees and plants, to stay ‘forever.” After exploring fire and earth, Lockwood turned to the element of water with Piano Drowning (1972), which was installed in a cattle pond.
While Lockwood conceived of taking a piano to the ocean as early as 1972, Southern Exposure was not realized until 1995. And although Southern Exposure had to wait until the twenty-first century to be executed, its invention, along with the other Piano Transplants, predates many of the technological advancements described above. While The Piano and the beachy Youtube clips isolate moving images and sound to create an illusion of playing piano on a beach—exactly as expected for their respective genres—Lockwood’s Southern Exposure allows the piano to linger in the waves. she leaves it vulnerable to the elements and invites any interested passerby to walk right up to the piano, explore it and even play it. There is no worry about screwing up the video shoot or wind whistling through the microphone.
The very word “transplant” suggests both motion and grounding, the idea of a piano being brought to a new home. Lockwood, in creating a live, in-person work, has no need to “polish” the piano or to tear the visual and auditory elements away from one another. Or to create an illusion of something her transplant is not. She embraces the materiality of the instrument and acknowledges its full presence and transformation. In none of the examples above does one hear the piano as it actually sounds in its location, but that is exactly the point here. Rather than crafting impossibilities, Southern Exposure cultivates possibilities.
This piano, aged and worn as it may be, lacking its protective lid, somehow looks less lonely.
[“raw is real”]
Lockwood’s pianos, to be sure, are not entirely removed from media or the internet, as evidenced the the photos included here (generously provided by the composer). And in the current day, one cannot prevent audience members and visitors from taking photos and even video of one’s performances. (Don’t get me started . . .) But if feels significant that the Piano Transplants predate the time when screens and posts became so ubiquitous and so expected.
Piano Burning is about as old as I am. When I was in college in the 1980s, I encountered this photo:
I was captivated by the image. It made me wonder what a burning piano would sound like, not to mention how the composer conceived the idea and managed to execute it. There was no Youtube, no Instagram, and if I wanted to listen to music, I would go to the “listening room” of the library on campus. I did not expect to find any video or audio of Piano Transplants. So, in a way, Lockwood’s works did show an isolation of image and sound: in this case because audio and video recording were elusive, not as in the previous cases where audio and video are manipulated separately and then sutured back together to make an illusion of reality. Looking at the image of the piano burning, I had to imagine and wonder all on my own.
If only I could hear what it sounded like, I thought.
In October 2021, Issue Project Room presented an online stream of Piano Transplants. The videos remain available online.
So far, though, I have hesitated to watch the videos. Having spent several decades imagining the burning piano, I take pleasure in continuing to leave it to the imagination. As useful as documentary materials can be, there is something incongruous about experiencing installations and live performances onscreen. This is easy to forget, as our listening and viewing experiences become farther and farther removed from live experience.
I’ll probably watch it though.
Annea Lockwood tells me that there is no audio or video documentation available for Southern Exposure. This too I find enchanting. I like to imagine it. It is a reminder that there are some experiences not available to me, and that my hunger to digest may lead to a diminished experience.
In fact, “impossibility” was also on the composer’s mind when she realized Southern Exposure.
Lockwood describes Southern Exposure’s inclusion in the 1982 exhibition Sonorita Prospettiche: Suono/Ambient/Immagine, in Rimini: Lockwood was invited “to submit a score for an impossible piece. . . . I submitted it thinking that no-one would ever give me a grand piano and ships anchor for this purpose.”
Some years later, though, the “impossible” piece became possible. Lockwood shares her recollections:
Southern Exposure was presented by the (Perth) Totally New Music Festival, 2005 under the inspired direction of the festival director, Tos Mahoney at Bathers Beach, Fremantle and made possible by Ross Bolleter locating a suitable little grand piano in a fine state of dilapidation. Ross is a composer, superb pianist and improviser, a Ruined Piano pioneer in Perth who has been rescuing ruined pianos from farmers’ sheds etc and placing them at an olive farm in the outback. The shot of me playing that piano with another musician is of me and Ross having a fine time while installing on the beach. It was pure play, that installations. Kids reached in and made great sounds, as they always do. People crawled under the piano. That night some people decided it needed rescuing again and 4 men and 1 woman carried it off to the hostel they were staying in, putting it under the ‘telly’ (TV). Tos Mahoney issued an all-points bulletin, alerted the harbor security, the police, the local radio station and TV station etc. and the manager of the hostel summarily told the 5 abductors to put the piano back on the beach. A wonderful story.
The next day we installed explanatory signage there and right after that a storm blew in on the Indian Ocean, ripping the loosely attached lid and all the piano legs off, two of which we found but one totally disappeared and the body of the instrument, of course, half-filled with sand. We couldn’t obtain an anchor. I had written, for the festival program: ‘needs. Defunct piano, and an anchor, and moving team. As I envision it- we would set it up on the sand, at the high tide line, attach the anchor, raise the lid, and leave it there indefinitely.’ (which radically underestimated that ocean’s power). ‘The idea is that it will only be in the water periodically, so it might remain sounding for some time. We watch the process of water, sand and wind working on it.’
It was great fun, pure joy. And ideal as the first realization of that Transplant, one which I’d thought could never be realized.
[should be beyond repair]
Having viewed so many images of pianos on beaches, and having heard sounds that either do or do not fit them—and now, hearing stories and seeing images of a piano transplant only those present were able to hear, I think of all the associations the piano raises. History, self-expression, elitism, domesticity, seduction, labor, pleasure, injury. These and other threads weave their way through all the examples I have gathered into my piano warehouse.
I would not want to attach too definitive or stable an interpretation to Lockwood’s beach piano. Just as the work will depend on circumstances of the specific piano, the location, the elements, and human actions, the work leaves itself open to circumstances and the unexpected—as in being carted off by “rescuers” without the composer knowing, as happened at Bathers Beach.
As I write on the last day of September 2022, I am reminded of the relentlessness and fickleness of the ocean. Hurricane Fiona has left the Canadian Maritimes in disarray, and minutes ago Hurricane Ian landed in Georgetown, South Carolina. I have seen images and videos of less welcome juxtapositions of objects and water: a refrigerator submerged in Orlando, an electric guitar in a pile of debris in Newfoundland. There was even a video with police displaying a fallen traffic light as a warning, which (oddly) included a soundtrack of generically expressive piano music. To be sure, most will find losing a home more consequential than losing a musical instrument, but there is something poignant about wounded musical tools lying silent and soggy. Such images might remind me of Lockwood’s beachside pianos; or, conversely, Lockwood’s work might remind me of the vulnerability of human endeavors—whether serious or frivolous—in the face of circumstances beyond one’s control.
Lockwood’s instructions point to this fragility: she writes that the pianos used in her works “should be beyond repair.” Piano Transplants does not luxuriate in destroying or mangling useful instruments but honors their fragility, offering them another chance to be of use. I begin to anthropomorphize the instruments, picturing these behemoths being collected and ushered around to experience new environments and meet new people.
As the story about the piano being carted away exemplifies, Lockwood’s Piano Transplants continue to take place even when she is absent. She allows them to continue on their own. Another story from the composer describes a moment of serendipity that, to my considerable surprise, recalls the historical fiction of Campion’s film The Piano.
Lockwood’s fifth Piano Transplant was realized again in 2013, this time “titled ‘Eastern Exposure’ because Harwich is on the East Coast of England.” She describes a scene that could not have been staged and that was not filmed, and that even began in her absence. A visit from passersby perhaps allowed the instrument to remember its distant history. Lockwood reports:
There’s a curious little story attached to this version. When I went down to the beach the morning after the piano was placed there, also sans anchor, I found two women in full Victorian costumes, one seated at the piano (a piano stool had thoughtfully been left there, it must have been calm overnight), the other leaning on it, as if singing, just like old daguerreotype images. They turned out to be greeters, there to meet travelers from the Hook of Holland-Harwich ferry and tell them about the town’s attractions, and were delighted by the piano’s sudden appearance. Delicious.
Hearty thanks are due to Annea Lockwood for discussing her Piano Transplants with me and for kindly providing photos.