Under the cover of a thick fog, on the first night of February 2013, Mauro ffortissimo rolled an old grand piano onto the bluffs over Half Moon Bay.
His plan was to play the same Schumann Arabesque each night at sunset. The next day a few friends, cyclists, and dog walkers gathered along the coastal trail to watch as Mauro propped open the lid, clipped his sheet music to the stand, and brought the hundred year old piano back to life. The evening was surprisingly warm, the sunset deep orange, and the music magnificent.
As word spread between neighbors, photos were sent via cell phones, and updates appeared on social media. Each night the audience grew exponentially. From a local blog to the cover of a weekly paper, public radio to the LA Times, the piano, once abandoned, now sparked the curiosity of thousands. Responding to a complaint, a code enforcement officer deemed it an unlawful encroachment on public land and gave Mauro ten days for its removal. With the final performance set for Valentine's Day, the piano was the talk of the town. Satellite trucks and TV crews reported live updates from each nightly performance, and the piano became an internet star.
Mauro never intended the show to last forever and from the outset planned a final performance with the piano set aflame. The piano had a rich history and was like a member of the family, but after a long life, a period of decline, and finally a couple of weeks in the fog, it had finally become unplayable, and a cremation was planned for the following day. In a solemn ceremony the piano was set ablaze. Mauro ducked flames with a final musical improvisation, then everyone stood back to reflect in smoke and silence.
What brought so many to see Sunset Piano? Was this a death with dignity or the desecration of a family heirloom? At what point does the passage of time render something beyond salvation? For many, the Sunset Piano was a serenade to humanity. It shook us out of routine to share an unforgettable experience as family, friends, neighbors, and community. As was true for the piano, our days are also numbered. Realizing that time is fleeting brings a certain sadness, as well as the chance to revel in the true beauty of impermanence. - Lars Howlett
Lars was instrumental in getting the word out in the earliest days of Sunset Piano, documenting and publicizing the first events of Opus 1 on the bluffs of Half Moon Bay. His boundless enthusiasm helped launch the project into the world. His gorgeous book of photographs of that time is available on the Connections page.
In April of 2013, Mauro told me of his intentions. He said, "I'm doing the piano thing again, but this time with twelve pianos, all up and down the coast. People will find them next to the ocean and play for the whales".
I suddenly had that feeling you sometimes get as a filmmaker, a little voice in your subconscious that says, “Uh-oh… you’re going to make a film about this. It’s going to take over your life and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it”.
For the next two months, we scouted locations, picked up abandoned pianos, had them repaired and tuned, contacted local musicians, and prepared. In addition to my filmmaker badge, I also started wearing a project manager's hat. We ran a Kickstarter campaign, found a bunch of fans, and formed a unique kind of community in the process. In July, a heroic human effort placed a dozen pianos into some bizarre (for a piano) and beautiful situations: on seaside cliffs, in hidden forests, even at the top of coastal mountains.
Thousands of people were surprised and delighted by the sudden appearance of a parlor instrument next to their favorite jogging trail. Music happened, people came, some of the local authorities became very upset, and a small, dedicated crew documented it all: laughter, singing, tears, and high drama.
Many themes surfaced during Opus 2. As our relationship with technology continues to evolve, we need to be reminded that the craft of the past should be cherished. Discarding priceless handmade instruments is a metaphor for the way we are endangering the habitat of whales and many other species, bringing them to the brink of extinction. By rescuing pianos and promoting “piano culture”, the Sunset Piano project is about focussing on the beauty of the world we already have.
By simply changing the context of a musical instrument, issues of environmental sustainability, the loss of fine hand craft to a digital future, music in schools and public places, and community all became very important to a great many people. Opus 2 was a fine example of how art can change the world. - Dean Mermell
The Sunset Piano project came to town with a social experiment: how will music played outdoors affect human behavior in an urban environment? Here's what happened: In the summer of 2013, Mauro fortissimo and Dean Mermell placed a dozen pianos in beautiful natural settings along the San Mateo Coastline. It generated a lot of attention, and we were invited by Ellyn Parker from the mayor's office in San Francisco to bring the project to SF in 2014.
It began slowly, with a furtive piano sighting here and there. But then grand pianos conspicuously began to appear throughout the city without notice, pulled by ropes on wheeled platforms by specially trained "piano ninjas". Professional musicians, singers, and poets were scheduled to perform at free cultural events.
As always, we featured our brilliant and ever expanding posse of Sunset Piano musicians in unlikely settings, and were constantly surprised by the talent of folks just passing by who just wanted to bust out their Chopin, Gershwin or Monk, not to mention Chopsticks.
Pianos were brought to neighborhoods where some people have no home, let alone access to music. All kinds of city dwellers... music lovers, musicians, poets, dancers, and artists... gathered at piano happenings in both "sophisticated" and "unfashionable" parts of town to share their experiences of urban life.
We were asked by the Santa Clara County Parks to bring pianos to 4 of their beautiful parks. Their Pianos in Parks event lasted a month in late summer and was a big hit.
We also hosted several underground events in the city that are difficult to describe. It was reminiscent of old school San Francisco, with a long tradition going back before even the Beats in North Beach. We hope to find ways to do more of these again.
Sunset Piano marches (and rolls) onward in 2015. In these times of uncertainty and rapid change, we are proud and honored to be part of the cultural heritage of this great city. Art, music, poetry and culture belong to everyone. -Dean Mermell