Piano Burning

This is the photograph that first captured my imagination whilst I was researching for a piece on New Zealand-born contemporary composer Annea Lockwood. Aside from the visually and environmentally unusual placing of a piano A) outside and B) on a quite deliberately unstable surface, it drew my attention for another reason.

I have always believed there is an affinity between the way I feel listening to music and the way I feel listening to Nature. There is a sense of ‘being in’ both – of being enveloped in something much greater than myself – something which is in part intangible, and all of which touches at least one of my senses. Coming into audible contact – a sense of ‘being in’ – both Nature and music changes my psychology, if only for an instant.

They are my see-through blankets, enveloping temporarily – two separate sources of oft-times sensual enjoyment that mean a lot to me, and to many people all over the world, but few composers capture the intersection so strikingly.

So- what is the story behind this piano-meets-elements idea? For, as we shall see, the endpoint for these instruments is sometimes not a particularly tranquil one.

Piano Garden is the second of a 4-part composition series by New Zealand-born composer Annea Lockwood called Piano Transplants. These visually surreal and musically innovative compositions tread the line between conventional ideas about music – or what audiences associate with music (i.e. a played piece and the instrument it is played upon) – and standalone pieces of performance art.

In some instances, the composer’s instructions stipulate that the piano can be played as a musical instrument, but only at specific times – such as when it is on fire. This is the case with Piano Burning, the first in Lockwood’s series, performed in London in 1968, where the composer instructs that the piano can be played after it has been set alight and only until it becomes unsafe to do so.

Here are instructions for the piece as can be found and downloaded from Annea Lockwood’s website:

Piano Burning (1968 London).

Set upright piano (not a grand) in an open space with the lid closed.

Spill a little lighter fluid on a twist of paper and place inside, near the pedals.

Light it.

Balloons may be stapled to the piano.

Play whatever pleases you for as long as you can.

The spectacle is at turns magnificent, liberating, frightening, and sad as the piano and its strings crumble and twang away until it becomes a heap of ashes on the ground. Lockwood amplifies what is happening inside the piano by placing microphones around it and within it which transmits all the sounds as it burns to the audience outside.

This often renders any recordings useless – the microphones often fall victim to the flames and skeleton of the piano.

However, it is important to note here that the composer’s intention is not violence or a subversive destruction of ‘traditional’ music methods in favour of more radical forms of performance. It is instead the desire to bring the experience of natural elements and music combining as close to her audience – and herself – as possible.

Piano Drowning, 1972 – Amarillo, Texas. A ‘piano in a pond’, as she called it, a ‘surreal juxtaposition’, ‘a beautiful, strange juxtaposition… It’s probably still standing.’

Lockwood remembered that the pond was ‘perfect’ since it was so shallow and the piano could still be played up to 5 years after they left it there, slowly sinking into the ground.

Here are the instructions:

Piano Drowning (1972 – Amarillo, Texas)

Find a shallow pond with a clay/other hard bed in an isolated place.

Slide upright piano into position vertically, just off-shore.

Anchor the piano against storms, e.g. by rope to strong stakes.

Take photographs and play it monthly, as it slowly sinks.

And so to return to Piano Garden. Lockwood’s pieces envelop her listeners in that sensory environment – the sound, smell, and sight of the piano as it begins its journey in fire, water, earth and wind. If it is eventually destroyed so be it, but it is not the destruction itself that the composer is indulging in, it is the audible, visual and sensuous experience of a piano’s contact with it – the intersection of elements as far as can be experienced at that moment – by a piano, by its music and by Nature.

If you would like to learn more about Annea Lockwood and her work, I really recommend reading her essay ‘How To Prepare A Piano’ or checking out her website. These two books have also helped me understand a little further our sonic relationship with the natural world and the different impacts it can have on our psyche:

Blue Mind: The Surprising Science – by Wallace J. Nichols



The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World – by Trevor Cox 

In Love&Light, FS XOX

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