San Francisco

'Flower Piano' Exhibit Brings 12 Playable Pianos To Golden Gate Park Botanical Garden

Stroll through Golden Gate Park’s Botanical Garden today, and you might happen upon something a little out of the ordinary: 12 pianos have been placed throughout the garden. They're intended for anyone to play, and over the next 12 days, both scheduled and impromptu concerts will fill the garden. The art installation is called Flower Piano, and it’s part of an ongoing project, Sunset Piano, from musician-artists Mauro ffortissimo and Dean Mermell.

Sunset Piano began in 2013 when ffortissimo (his adopted name) brought an old, donated piano out to the bluffs over Half Moon Bay, where he lives. “What he likes to say is that he was playing for the whales,” said Mermell. People photographed and took videos of the unusual sight, sharing it on social media; news crews even drove out to the bluffs to document the scene.

Unfortunately, the piano was deemed unlawful, and ffortissimo was given 10 days to remove it. After years of exposure to the elements, the piano was becoming unplayable, so he held one final performance before setting it ablaze. 

Two years later, ffortissimo and Mermell (who joined as the project's manager in late 2013) are being invited by cities to place pianos in parks, on street corners, and in gardens. In 2013, they placed pianos up and down the San Mateo coast, and in 2014, the San Francisco mayor’s office invited them to place pianos throughout the city. Santa Clara County Parks invited the duo and their pianos back for a second year. The pianos are donated by people who no longer have room for them in their lives. 

Sunset Piano in San Francisco, 2014. (Photo: cclark395/Flickr)

Sunset Piano is intended to explore questions about environmental sustainability, music in public places, and digital culture. “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," writes Mermell on Sunset Piano's website. "By rescuing pianos and promoting ‘piano culture,’ the Sunset Piano project is about focusing on the beauty of the world we already have."

"Technology is an integral part of our culture," Mermell told us. "Still, there are things it can’t do. [My phone] weighs a few ounces. It’s in my pocket. And it does 10,000 things. A piano is 700 pounds, and it does one thing. A piano is a choice.” As we develop as humans, he said, we make such choices based on what’s important to us, to continue to have quality in our lives. 

Mermell said the public's response to the pianos is always quite positive. “It’s this huge object that has no business being on a cliff or near an intersection or basically anywhere outside somebody’s living room. So it’s always a moment of surprise." He says the real magic happens when people start to play, because a piano sounds different outside. "It interacts with the environment, whether it’s in nature or an urban environment. And to hear Rachmaninoff or Chopin or Debussy or Dr. John played on a piano that's under a tree or on Market Street is a totally different experience than it is in a concert hall or somebody’s house.”

Dean Mermell (left) and Mauro ffortissimo (right). (Photo: Courtesy of Dean Mermell)

“When you put a piano on the street, especially in an urban setting, a lot of people show up who are down on their luck," said Mermell. "Especially in San Francisco, where the homeless problem has received a lot of attention lately. And you see that your concepts about what a person in this situation might be like are not accurate. Somebody will sit down who looks like they’ve definitely had hard times in their life, and they’ll be very proficient on the piano. It’s heartening, and it’s also heartbreaking, knowing that this is a person that should somehow have access to a piano in their life. It feels good to be able to give this person a means of expression for a little while.”

When the duo decided they wanted to bring pianos back to San Francisco, they contacted Rec and Parks with the idea of placing pianos in Golden Gate Park. The department suggested the Botanical Garden for its visually dramatic spaces and relatively compact size. Fortuitously, the proposal also coincided with the garden's 75th anniversary celebrations.

"We loved the originality, simplicity, and accessibility of the idea. Bringing instruments into the outdoors for all to play," said Brendan Lange, the Botanical Garden's director of visitor experience and marketing. "The two things—music and the natural world—seem like very complementary experiences." 

Lange said he and his team wanted to use some of the garden's most dramatic settings as backdrops for the pianos. They include the century-old Redwood Grove, the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest, the Moon Viewing Garden and the Garden of Fragrance. "We wanted to pick the most beautiful spots, and we wanted to place them in as many of the different gardens as possible. That way, visitors will go on a fantastic journey if they choose to find all twelve pianos."

Photo: San Francisco Botanical Garden

After Flower Piano's finale, ffortissimo and Mermell plan to approach botanical gardens in other areas of the country, starting with Los Angeles’s Huntington Gardens. “We think it’s a concept that can travel," said Mermell. "We'll work with local musicians and cultural organizations wherever we are, and bring these same wonderful interactions to other places.”

The duo's long-term goal—their magnum opus, one might say—is to bring pianos to the Great Wall of China. “It’s something we’re looking into," said Mermell. "Mauro went to China earlier this year, and he’s going to be going again later this year. We're making connections and trying to make it happen.”

While most of the players will be amateurs, the garden has scheduled several performances by accomplished pianists throughout the 12 days. Most notably, they'll hold “piano extravaganzas” on two Saturdays, July 11th and 18th, with 12 pianists playing all 12 pianos simultaneously from noon to 2pm. Their featured pianist, Steinway artist Lara Downes, will perform July 18th at 11am.

In between, anyone is invited to tickle the ivories during the garden’s visiting hours (7:30am-7pm, with last entry at 6pm). Admission to the garden is free for SF residents and between $2 and $7 for out-of-towners. "We really want to encourage people to both come out and play themselves," said Lange. "Chopsticks to Chopin."

A full schedule of the planned Flower Piano performances can be found here. For more about Sunset Piano, including future events, donations, and a trailer for Twelve Pianos, the film Mermell's making about the project, visit their website.

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