The Birth of Sunset Piano

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, 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, 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 and a couple of weeks in the fog, it had finally become unplayable. 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.

Was this a death with dignity or the desecration of a family heirloom? For many, the Sunset Piano was a serenade to humanity. It shook us out of routine to share an unforgettable experience as 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 beauty of impermanence.   - Lars Howlett 

The Evolution

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 said… “OK… I’ll help you. And I’ll film it.

For the next two months, we scouted locations, picked up abandoned pianos, had them repaired and tuned, and contacted local musicians. 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. Hundreds of hours of filming and music recordings were edited over a period of 3 years, resulting in the film, Twelve Pianos.

Many themes surfaced during the project.  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, other creatures, and our own species. 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 craft to a digital future, music in schools and public places, and community all became very important to a great many people. We clearly saw how art can change the world.   - Dean Mermell

 

Onward

Following our coastal installation, 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, pulled by ropes on wheeled platforms by specially trained "piano ninjas".  Professional musicians, singers, and poets were scheduled to perform at free cultural events. 

Pianos were brought to neighborhoods where many have no home, let alone access to music. 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 also hosted several “unauthorized” events in a condemned building 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. The best of these moments found their way into the film, of course.

About the time we were finishing these events, we approached SF Rec and Park with the idea of hiding pianos throughout Golden Gate Park. Unknown to us, this was at the same time that the SF Botanical Garden, located within the park, was preparing to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Out of a quick and beautiful collaboration between Sunset Piano and the Garden, the idea of Flower Piano was born.

Sunset Piano rolls onward. In these times of uncertainty and rapid change, we are happy to be a joyful noise and part of the cultural heritage of this great city.  Art, music, poetry and culture belong to everyone.   -Dean Mermell

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