Sometimes, the best ideas come out of ones that are about to ruin your career. That’s how it seemed to Luke Jerram back in 2007 when he spent thousands of pounds on an art installation that didn’t get installed. “We were to put an orchestra into hot air balloons,” explains Jerram from his home in Bristol. “We were to fly over Birmingham early in the morning and give this surround sound effect. Everyone turned up to fly but it was a windy morning and we couldn’t do it. It was a disaster because we still had to pay everyone, just for turning up.” Jerram had blown most of his budget on the ambitious project, so he had to come up with a way of reaching a similar sized audience or risk career suicide. “And that’s how I came up with this crazy idea to put pianos all over the city.”
Play Me I’m Yours opened in Melbourne on Thursday night when a convoy of 24 pianos (pop quiz – what’s the collective noun for several pianos?) freshly decorated by local artists rolled out all over the city. The idea is that anyone, at any time, regardless of skill can sit down and bang out their rendition of Chopsticks to an impromptu audience, thus bringing people together. “The pianos provide a blank canvas for the public’s creativity,” explains Jerram. “And that to me is a very powerful idea.”
Indeed, as the show travels, stories abound of people meeting and having their lives transformed in all sorts of ways. Jerram happily relates the story of a piano that was installed in a Sao Paolo train station near the home of a cleaner who had never heard her daughter play. “They couldn’t afford a piano themselves so the girl had been going across the city for lessons,” says Jerram. “After four years they came across this piano in the station and the daughter sat down and played and the mother cried. All the journalists found out about it and the public turned up and everyone cried. It was just amazing.”
Not bad for a collection of pianos rescued from semi-abandonment, mostly gathering dust in living rooms. And this too is a cornerstone of the art project. Every time the show arrives in a new city, the council goes on a donation drive for unused pianos which according to Jerram, are offered in droves. “They’re just about worthless in today’s culture. I know of one company here in the UK that destroys three hundred of them annually.” And when Play Me I’m Yours arrives in poorer cities where there isn’t that kind of instrumental surplus, he imports pianos from the UK in shipping containers. “For ten thousand dollars I can get a whole container of used pianos to places like Mexico City and Porta Rico. It’s cheaper than trying to find them locally.”
Asked whether putting old family heirlooms out on the world’s streets is risky, Jerram points out that they’re donated on a one-way basis. After the show they’re given to community groups so they continue to be used by the public, and in only one instance has a piano been vandalised. “That was in Bristol actually, which is where I live. There was one piano that was strapped to a lamppost in a park and vandals set fire to it. It melted all the cables in the lamp, which shorted the power to a pump that was feeding oxygen to a pond. So the piano and the lamp were destroyed and all the fish died in the pond.”
The above story notwithstanding, Play Me I’m Yours has been an international success with over 1000 pianos appearing in 37 cities internationally. From the two journalists who met over a piano in Sydney and later got married, to the professional musician in the states who gave up everything to follow the show around the world, this is a show with some serious life-affirming chops. As Jerram admits, “I kind of feel obliged to carry on doing this. It shouldn’t really be up to me whether people in Mexico City should have such a great time on a piano because I’m artistically bored. This has just become so much bigger than myself.”
Play Me I’m Yours can be found on the streets of Melbourne until January 27.