Acoustic Upright and Grand: 21 Pianos

October 18, 2016

Imagine you live in the late 19th century and are traveling by ship for an extended period of time without the creature comforts of home. What would you use for entertainment? It is very likely you would’ve run across a so-called ship’s piano, an upright whose reduced size fit the confines of a water vessel. Captain Robert F. Scott brought one—reportedly a Broadwood & Sons player piano—on his expeditions to Antarctica in 1901 and 1910, and James Joyce referenced such an instrument on a yacht in his story collection Dubliners.

Fast forward a century—composer/keyboardist Wayne Horvitz is presented with a ship’s piano that is destined to become the centerpiece of his latest work, 21 Pianos. “Almost a decade ago, a friend traded me a piano for one copy of each of my CDs,” Horvitz explains in the proposal for this site-specific project. Like other ship’s pianos, his instrument has fewer keys than a full-size piano—67, to be exact. “It is out of tune on an epic scale,” he explains, “and impossible to ‘fix’. It sounds amazing.”

21 Pianos visits Fergus Falls, MN. The local church organist tries out “Bringing in the Sheaves,” at an arts’ fair in a local park. Wayne Horvitz is on the left.
Horvitz explains that, in the 19th century, pianos represented “the highest technological ideal,” although this piano, after many years of use and neglect, is in a state of “decay.” Yet it is because of its unique sound that he enjoys improvising and recording with the instrument.

As part of the 21 Pianos project, Horvitz is taking the keyboard on a long journey, just as its manufacturer—London-based John Broadwood & Sons, founded in the late 18th century—may have originally intended. This time, however, it is traveling in the back of a U-Haul trailer on an itinerary that includes 21 cities and towns throughout the state of Minnesota.

Funded by a 2015 McKnight Composition Fellowship, 21 Pianos is a sort of old-school social-networking experiment: In each community he visits, Horvitz invites locals to play whatever music they feel comfortable with on the instrument. And with the player’s permission, the impromptu performances are recorded, photographed, and videotaped. The audio files will eventually be integrated into a series of compositions and packaged, with the photographs, as a book about the project.

However, Horvitz’s odyssey to the Land of 10,000 Lakes begins in Seattle, where he lives. Before leaving, he gave the 21 Pianos concept a trial run by taking the instrument to the Royal Room—a performance venue he started—and letting several of his favorite pianists play it. “Part of the point,” Horvitz writes, “is to have the musicians sit down to play without any idea of what it will sound like.”

After few weeks into the project, with many miles and performances behind him, I asked Horvitz to describe the reactions of those who are brave enough to sit down and play the piano. “People flinch at first,” he says, “and then they want to play it more!”

People of all ages have played this ship’s piano—on city streets, in homes and studios, and in the open outdoors—filtering jazz, classical, religious, and popular tunes through the instrument’s unique tonality. To hear some of the performances, visit Horvitz’s blog at 21pianos.com, where he has posted videos, photos, and text that document the overall experience.

Referring to his piano’s severe tuning challenges, Horvitz shares another observation. “It’s almost always more interesting when people play a song that is familiar. The structure of the song really comes to the forefront. When people ‘recognize’ the tune it has to do with the architecture of the piece. In general, we focus so much on harmony and melody; at least I do. But playing this instrument puts a very different lens on the music, and it’s the transformation that is the most intriguing.

“That being said,” he continues, “in the hands of a really interesting improviser, it can be pretty phenomenal. But they have to let the sound of the piano lead them.”

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