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Pianos Become Spontaneous Street Art in Public Space

This public art project is less about large-scale work, but playing scales.

Granted, the scope is immense. The Los Angeles region rendition of artist Luke Jerram "Play Me, I'm Yours" -- first launched in Birmingham, England in 2008 -- will place 30 upright pianos in strategic places around Los Angeles County for the public to play anytime for three weeks.

The project is led by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) to mark the season-long celebration of music director and pianist Jeffery Kahane's 15th Anniversary.

Often, the upright in the other 22 "Play Me, I'm Yours" cities were decorated by local artists. That is the case for Los Angeles, where street art and muralists are part of the landscape.

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If there was a lead designer from the pool of professional and amateur artists for a LACO public art project, it would be muralist Kent Twitchell. His "Harbor Freeway Overture" on what was then Citicorp Plaza parking structure is visible driving north on the 110 Freeway, was painted by Twitchell 20 years ago in homage to LACO and features nine LACO musicians, then-concertmaster Ralph Morrison, and mural benefactor Tachi Kiuchi.

Twitchell's piano has the face of Kahane at the base, his hands on top in mid-performance.

That one piano may be the product of LACO Executive Director Rachel Fine's own personal expression -- by chance and by design. She tracked "Play Me, I'm Yours" as it weaved its way through other countries and saw it as a potential project that represented how Kahane has led LACO for 15 years. "He's community minded, and his creative and open mind makes him a great collaborator, not just as conductor to an orchestra," Fine said to KCET. She organized and adapted the installation for Los Angeles in belief there should be no barriers between locals and LACO "just because it's classical music."

Purely speculation on my part, but considering Fine is the spouse of L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, thoughts about the relationship between public space, art, and music within the city must have been an occasional topic at the dinner table. That makes a heady subconscious debriefing for a piano-in-public space-project.

Even if that how-was-your-day chat was not an influence, Fine is still the conductor of, according to Jerram, the most ambitious rendition of "Play Me, I'm Yours."

Easily some will compare this to the 2002 "A Community of Angels" that dotted angel sculptures throughout the city. It's more than that. Fine is encouraging performances beyond solo recitals with outreach to choirs, bands, and other ensembles, like dance or theater, to use the piano sites for a rehearsals or improvised sessions. "The pianos are a resource to everyone in Los Angeles," she said, which she considers a metaphor for LACO's mission of presenting music as collaboration with its community.

It begins at noon on Thursday, April 12, when 30 pianists simultaneously perform Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1" in the 30 locations. Musicians who are part of the opening day county-wide concert are Jeffrey Kahane himself; Grant Gershon, Mark Robson, Lucinda Carver, Rueibin Chen, and Derek Bermel.

Piano design by muralist Frank Romeo I LACOAlong with Twitchell, other participating public artists are Chicano Art Movement leader and muralist Frank Romero, who designed the piano assigned to El Pueblo Historical Monument / Olvera Street. Raoul De La Sota and Pola Lopez of Avenue 50 Studio designed the piano hosted by and stationed at the Music Center.

Contributing street artists include Man One, who collaborated with The HeArt Project for the upright hosted by the Pasadena Conservatory of Music; Evan Skrederstu worked on the piano for The Wende Museum assigned to 5900 Wilshire; and Fabian Debora of Homeboy Industries did the design for Plaza de la Raza's instrument.

Twitchell's upright will be at the International Plaza, Ronald Tutor Campus Center, University of Southern California.

Each piano has another guardian besides the artist working with an institution to make the piano a work of art: a volunteer guard is assigned to each instrument, and a plastic "raincoat" is ready in case of rain.

"Play me, I'm Yours" is not just about the event, said Fine. The used uprights are to be tuned up for performance, and remained tuned during the duration of the installation. "It's about people making music spontaneously in public space," she said.

That is a kinship classical music will share with street art for three weeks -- being spontaneous in public space.


Above: "Jeffrey Kahane portrait piano, acrylic on wood" according to Kent Twitchell. Photos of pianos and performances can be uploaded at Street Pianos I Los Angeles:2012.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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