UK artist Luke Jerram placed reconditioned pianos in cities around the world and changed the way we interact with our anonymous co-citizens. Be it school children – or Alicia Keys.
If you arrive in London via the Channel Tunnel rail link, your entry point will be the magnificently refurbished St Pancras International station. Until 10 years ago the least used of London’s grand terminuses, this Victorian cathedral of travel is now full of travelers spending money in the station’s many upscale shops. But if you take a minute and listen – rather than look – you’ll start to notice something else: the sound of a piano playing.
This is not some bland soundtrack piped through speakers to get you to spend more, but a real instrument played by a real person. Its random nature – one minute you’ll hear some rumbling Beethoven, the next a few bars of 1950s rock ’n’ roll – reminds us that moments of beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places.
The piano at St Pancras is part of a constantly evolving art project called Play Me, I’m Yours. Since 2008, British artist Luke Jerram has placed pianos in public spaces in cities all over the world (the first was Birmingham), encouraging people to simply sit down and play. The effect is startling. Whether you’re in London or Melbourne, Geneva or Stockholm, the sound of tinkling keys brings people together, prompting them – just for once – to avert their gaze from their smartphones.
“A piano is a great conversation starter”
“The idea for Play Me, I’m Yours came from visiting my local launderette,” says Luke. “I saw the same people there every weekend, yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realized that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time together in silence. Placing a piano in the space was my solution to this problem, serving as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space.”
These pianos are not new, but old ones discarded as people move to electronic keyboards. Luke takes the instruments, has them refurbished, and then arranges for them to be installed in a new city as a part of Play Me, I’m Yours.
Once in place, musicians – who might not get the chance to showcase their skills – soon turn up and play. Suddenly, public spaces are transformed as people get an unexpected soundtrack to their usually mundane activities. Buying a sandwich or walking to the drugstore becomes something magical.
Alicia Keys and Jamie Cullum have performed on the project
“Everywhere we present the project, people get it almost immediately,” says Luke. “They just want to play or listen and those social barriers start to break down; people start to chat with strangers and make new friends! This project changes the way people interact with one another in a city.”
While the goal of the work is to get ordinary people to sit down and play, some better known musicians have also been persuaded to have a go. In New York, Alicia Keys took part, while Jamie Cullum traveled to France to perform in public – an experience he found exceptionally moving.
“It’s such a simple concept that brings out the best in people,” says the British singer-songwriter. “It reminds us of the strange and beautiful things that can happen in everyday life. I had one of the most memorable experiences of my life playing beneath Sacre Coeur in Paris on an old upright piano for a few hundred people.”
While one of the pleasing side effects of the project has been to take people away from their smartphones for a few moments, the phenomenon of a video camera in every pocket means that some incredible performances have been put online for everyone to see.
800,000 online views of the Santiago clip
“My favorite film is of this homeless man from Santiago, an ex-pianist, who opens up like a flower as he reintroduces his hands to the instrument,” says Luke Jerram. “I think it’s great this encounter has been shared by 800,000 people around the world rather than just three people standing next to the piano.”
Now entering its eighth year, the project shows no sign of slowing down, with new cities signing up all the time and spin-off projects taking the concept further. For Luke, it’s moved beyond art and onto something more profound.
“The project breaks down social barriers. I’ve seen old ladies teaching teenagers they’ve just met how to play. I’ve seen a homeless man playing a piano surrounded by dancing and applauding businessmen. Several people have gotten married as a result of the project and it’s changed many people’s lives.”
And if you happen to see an upright piano on your local street corner sometime soon, it might just do the same for you.
For more information on the project, visit the website.
Header image: Luke Jerram