Bach and beyond: NYers plink on public pianos
NEW YORK – Amid an urban orchestra of honking cabs, sirens and jackhammers, piano lovers plinked out tunes from Bach's "Minuet in G" to Elton John's "Rocket Man" on the first day dozens of public pianos were placed at New York City landmarks and parks for a public art project.
In bustling Times Square, on a traffic triangle in the East Village and at a park with the Statue of Liberty in the background, players flocked to the 60 pianos Monday as audiences applauded from taxicabs and sidewalks.
"This is the first time I've ever touched a piano," said Lynette Morris, a 52-year-old hospital maintenance worker from the Bronx. She had just sat down at one of the instruments in the East Village, situated at the top of subway stairs.
"I can't play but I'm going to try," Morris said.
Moments later, as construction trucks beeped and traffic roared by, a more experienced player got his chance on the bench. New Yorkers, who don't stop for much, halted in their tracks to listen as he ran through classics like Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" and Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy," otherwise known as the "Peanuts" theme.
During his final number, "Let It Be" by the Beatles, a guy manning a nearby coffee cart stuck his head out and belted out part of the chorus.
"It's amazing how a piano, in the middle of total urban chaos, will make everyone stop to hear the notes," said Dana Mozie, who was visiting from Washington.
The two-week project, devised by British artist Luke Jerram, is making its first U.S. stop in New York. The instruments are open for public play from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. in most locations. Each has a tarp in case of rain and has its own caretaker to unlock the keyboard each morning.
A few glitches were reported as the project started Monday. One piano had to be removed from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx because several of its keys were damaged by eager children, organizers said.
Other instruments had a few keys that didn't work, and one spot in Brooklyn did not open at the promised 9 a.m., disappointing some would-be players who arrived on time.
Jerram has done the installation in several other cities since 2008, including London, Sydney and Sao Paulo, but New York City is the largest so far.
In Battery Park, Don Nathman, a retired music teacher from Oregon, sat down and played Elton John's "Rocket Man," his white sneakers pressing the pedals as a crowd gathered around him.
"I saw it and thought, 'Hmm!'" Nathman said. "Anytime there's a piano I like to play."
When he finished, the group broke into applause.
The piano stood along a tree-lined pathway near the line for the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Children in summer camp groups passed by and couldn't resist dragging their hands over the keys. One after another, tourists stopped to play a few notes.
Eleven-year-old Nolan Bonnie, of Danville, Calif., sat down and played Beethoven's "Fur Elise," Bach's "Minuet in G" and another tune he had learned in his 18 months of piano lessons.
"That's about all I know," he told the small crowd.
It was harder to hear the notes in the heart of Times Square, where Aaron George's rendition of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" was nearly drowned out by honking taxis and a fire truck siren.
"It's a little noisy," said George, who plays piano at weddings in Clarkston, Mich. "But this is great. People need to get more music in their lives."
George said he read about the installation online and came to New York City specifically to play one of the pianos.
"I wanted to come here because this audience is huge," he said.
Pedestrians and passengers in passing taxis applauded and gave thumbs ups to the performers in Times Square.
Gili Ely, 43, an Israeli tourist, stood listening to the music.
"This is the perfect place for this," he said.
Associated Press writer Eva Dou contributed to this report.