Tuesday, 21 January 2014

"play me, I'm yours": a review of Melbourne's street pianos

If I owned a business that had enough spare cash (and sufficiently loose oversight arrangements) to enable me to engage in a series of follies, my first step would be to install a "music room" in the company headquarters, stocked with enough instruments to enable any stressed or uninspired employee to refresh and reinvigorate by banging out some tunes.

I was understandably delighted, then, when I learned that Melbourne was taking a short break from its own series of follies to instead implement my music room scheme at-large across the city, in the form of Play Me, I'm Yours.  This is a travelling two-week exhibition presented by Arts Centre Melbourne, whereby old pianos are fixed up, painted up, and set up on the streets of Melbourne, free for anyone to play as they please.


Ever since my father took an axe to the family piano to provide us with firewood (and materials to fashion weapons to fend off roving bands of cannibals) during the 1998 Longford gas explosion, I have been sans-piano, forced to make do with a procession of secondhand keyboards purchased off eBay that always seem to start with "what a good deal, it only needs minor repairs" and end with "no, electrocution is when you die, that was just a shock".

And so, whenever I get the chance, I love to sit down at a proper piano.  Below are some reviews of the Play Me, I'm Yours street pianos I've encountered over the past week.  Hopefully this helps to explain to people why I've been late a lot in recent days.

Little Collins Street / Swanston Street

Finding this piano locked shut as I approached it on a Wednesday morning (presumably to protect it from the rowdy folk who frequent the Swanston Street opal shops in the wee hours of the night), I nevertheless sat down and put in the performance of my lifetime—a silent concerto à la Adrien Brody in The Pianist.


As I rose to leave, a German backpacker arrived with pliers, and cut the lock.  "Come", he said, nodding toward the piano, "play something".  Timidly, I did as he told me.  Although his nonplussed expression remained frozen for the whole of my piece, I could tell he was impressed.  I now return to play for him every morning, in exchange for a tin of pickles.

Grade: B 

St Paul's Cathedral

This ingeniously disguised piano took quite some time to find—indeed, it was only when I started to bleed from the tips of my fingers that I realised I was sitting three metres too far left.


Sadly, as the piano is perched over the busy intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets, even the most heavenly playing is drowned out by the noise of traffic, making this location all honky, but no tonky.

Furthermore, the action on this piano has seen better days, meaning that you may struggle to sound many notes if your playing is of the Paul McCartney plonk-plonk-plonk variety—as is mine, having given up classical study as a teenager after my crusty old Italian piano teacher tried to shorten my fingernails with garden shears in between drooling on himself during sonata movements.

Grade: D 

Princes Bridge

I have been particularly fond of Princes Bridge ever since I was doored there in the spring of 2011.

It was horse racing season, and society-at-large had convinced many men that it was "classy" to stand sweating outdoors in a dirty paddock, wearing magical hats that (amazingly) managed to make the wearer feel like Humphrey Bogart, but look like the lead singer from Smash Mouth.

So when one of these anxious race-goers decided to hop out of his taxi in moving traffic to get to the train station four seconds faster, I was duly ejected from my bicycle onto the pavement.  "If only there were a street piano here to calm me down", I mused, in between alternate fits of swearing like a sailor and shaking like an adrenaline-soaked leaf.

These days, thanks to some excellent work from the City of Melbourne, Princes Bridge is now home to a veritable bicycle Champs-ÉlyséesI was riding up this magnificent thoroughfare last week, when, incredibly, I saw a street piano situated adjacent to the exact spot where man and bicycle became separated.


I returned a few days later to play this piano, and found that it put out a powerful, satisfying, manly rumble.  I also had an absurd little chuckle at the concrete block tied to the piano, because any nefarious characters that enter the city with the intent and equipment to steal pianos will obviously be flummoxed by a medium-sized brick.

Grade: B+ 

State Library of Victoria

If any of these pianos were to animate and eat you, it would be this one.


Grade: A 

Bourke Street Mall

As soon as it commenced, Play Me, I'm Yours began making an instant mark upon Melbourne.  Jauntiness shot to new heights, and I firmly believe that if not for the cathartic release offered by the street pianos, Melbourne would have turned upon itself in a fit of heatwave-driven civic unrest not seen since the great banana shortage of 2011.


Sadly, the real loser in all of this has been the pianos themselves.  A curious public and a week of 40+ degree temperatures does not a happy piano make—several of the trusty old goannas are clinging to life solely due to the hard work of travelling repairers and tuners.

This particular instrument was suffering from some serious issues with about half of its D keys.  Mercifully, Yarra Trams' new scheduling system (whereby no trams come for 25 minutes, and then four clatter past all at once) intervened to drown out my aural crimes.

Grade: C+  

Hamer Hall

More pianny than piano, this lovely little find has a classic old-timey sound that wouldn't be out of place accompanying a silent film-era slapstick routine.

I sat down at this (appropriately) rainbow number as an electrical storm rolled in over Melbourne.  Two construction workers carrying a long steel girder sidled over to listen, but began to argue over who would stand closest to the piano.  As they spun around with increasing vigour, the steel beam swished dangerously toward my bobbing head, which was deeply immersed in the playing of The Celebrated Chop Waltz.


My friend ran down to put a stop to this, but was collected by the girder and deposited over the railing, landing on the deck of a steamboat piloted by an oversized half-naked mouse, who had forced an oddly complacent cow's mouth open and was playing its teeth like a xylophone.  "Odd for a Tuesday", my friend said.  As the words left his mouth, I hit the final note in my piece, sending Southbank into a scene of rapturous applause.  The resulting commotion startled the cow, who jumped onto the pier and started to run upstairs to St Kilda Road.

Knowing it would be very difficult to get the cow back down, the mouse grabbed it by the tail, causing the cow to rear up on its hind legs and shoot milk from its udder.  The milk curdled in mid-air due to Melbourne's heatwave, before directly hitting the eyes of the lead nag in a tourist horse-and-coach operation.  The entire team of horses then bolted blindly down towards my piano.

Still carrying their girder, the workmen made a run for it, dispatching human statues into the Yarra faster than tourists could pay them to move.  The horse caught up to the workmen, and the girder was sent flying into an upmarket wine bar, where it lodged at an upright angle in the window.  Lightning promptly struck the girder, blowing out the window and unleashing a torrent of decorative wine barrels that knocked me and the piano into the river.

Six dwarves and a hobbit popped out of the barrels; my imagination promptly apologised to me for confusing matters, and directed me to a towel.

Grade: A+

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