Annea Lockwood Beside the Hudson River

Piano Transplants

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I want to talk about another work of yours published in SOURCE Magazine, the other early work of yours that put you on the world’s avant-garde musical map so to speak. And that was setting fire to a piano.

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Oh. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Which might also seem completely contradictory to the spirit of the environment, but is actually an environmental piece.

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: How so?

FRANK J. OTERI: Because you’re treating the piano as a physical object in space and time.

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: There are 4 different Piano Transplants. There is the piano burning, which is where it started. Then there is a piano that for many years—I don’t know if it’s still intact—has been slowly drowning in a small pond in Amarillo, Texas on the ranch of Stanley Marsh III. There were 3 pianos, 2 upright and a little baby grand—all the pianos were defunct, no soundboards and so on—that I had in my garden in Ingatestone in Essex, England for about 3 or 4 years or so, just before I left, from the early ’70s to ’73. Then there’s the hypothetical, improbable, impossible last one, which is to anchor a concert grand—a big black beast of a piano, so to speak-with a sea anchor at the high tide mark on the California coast at the Henry Cowell Redwoods, which was devised for an Italian show of impossible pieces. Then Jane Campion realized it in my own home territory. [laughs] In The Piano there was a piano anchored off the west coast of my island.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, to bring this back to sound—the 3 pianos in England, those are the ones that where buried, yes?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Yeah, at various angles like the Titanic going down and various other things.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, what do those sound like, those pieces?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: The three pianos in England were playable for quite a long time.

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Piano Garden, Ingatestone, Essex U.K. 1969
from the Piano Transplant Series
Photo by Chris Ware

The soundboards got even worse and so the sound got sort of fainter and thinner and tawnier. Of course they went wonderfully out of tune very fast.

FRANK J. OTERI: In the process of burial, did it sound like anything? Was there an auditory component to the visual/performance art process of the burial?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: With both the drowning piano and the pianos in the gardens I don’t remember that there was particularly. It was hard work digging trenches to bury them in. And the piano in the pond we lowered very gently from the backend of a truck. About six of us were around just lowering it very slowly into the pond, so slowly that there wasn’t any particular sound from that.

FRANK J. OTERI: So the idea was not to make a sound even? To do it gently so that there wouldn’t be a sound.

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: The idea in the pond was to keep the piano upright, if possible [laughs]—very practical—so we didn’t have to fuss around with it under water and push the thing up had it fallen on its back—very, very sort of practical.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did anyone ever go down into the pond and try to play it once it was in place?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: You know it was a very shallow pond. It was perfect. It had a clay bottom, which was very hard. It was about a foot deep, and it was going to sink very slowly, which is what actually happened. I last heard about it maybe 15 years ago when it was still making some sound amazingly.

FRANK J. OTERI: But the burning piano was about sound, wasn’t it?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: The first piano transplant was all about sound, the piano burning. After that it became just my love of surreal juxtapositions as much as anything—impossible objects in improbable places. But the first one was about the sound of heat. I had been working with a choreographer in England, Richard Alston, for a while. We decided that we’d put together a work called Heat in which we heated the auditorium to really high temperatures and get the whole audience sweating like crazy. I would use only the sounds of heat; so then I had to think of what I was going to burn.

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Piano Burning, 1969
from the Piano Transplant Series
Photo by Peter Elgar

Firewood takes you a certain distance, but I thought it wouldn’t have nearly the resonance of something like a piano burning. I happened to know that there was at that point a particular garbage dump in Wandsworth, London, which specialized in pianos that people wanted to get rid of. It was a piano graveyard basically, all uprights that peoples’ grandmothers had owned, which were long since defunct and replaced by the telly. So I knew that pianos would be available. I consciously thought that it might produce some interesting sounds. I had an old microphone that I could lose, that I could just put in the instrument and let it go. So I wrapped the microphone cable in asbestos so it would last as long as possible. I was involved in a small festival in London. We were on open ground where we could burn something safely.

FRANK J. OTERI: So are there documentary recordings of the piano burning? Can one listen to your piano burning?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: I wonder if it’s even still playable? It probably has to be baked. I’ve got a small reel of really thin tape that was recorded not at the burning itself. People started talking like crazy through the burning and the mic, which lasted a long time, of course picked up the chatter like anything. The piano made wonderful sounds, but as a way of recording heat, the crowd was a complete barrier. We didn’t get anything useful. But afterward we had a séance. Alex Gross, an American artist who is living in New York, and some other friends, decided we’d have a séance to see if we could raise Beethoven to see what he thought of it. So we collected in a tent afterwards for this séance. Alex got up and said, “Ludie! Ludie!” He did his damnedest to evoke Beethoven. Somebody was running a tape on an old Uher, you know, a little Uher deck. A wonderful sound came on the tape at that point. I’ve long since believed that Beethoven was full of opinions and made them heard! [laughs] It wasn’t feedback or anything electronic that we pin our ears on, it was just there. So that’s somewhere in my archives.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, what were those sounds? Obviously the strings would get heated up and get tense and pop I would imagine.

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: And there was an interesting resonance to a lot of the sounds. The pop, crackle, snaps, so to speak, were super resonant because of the qualities of the wood.

FRANK J. OTERI: Were there different pitches?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Rough pitches, yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: I would love to hear the way it sounds, but I wouldn’t want to set my own piano on fire in order to find out! [laughs]

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: [laughs] I can show you pictures of how it looked. It looked very beautiful. Smoke tendrils started coming up between the keys, and they were very delicate like the old pictures in children’s’ stories of the Genie coming out of Aladdin’s lamp—the way the smoke sort of spirals. That began to happen between the keys. There were all sorts of wonderful images.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a very Fluxus piece in a way.

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Yeah, it was.

FRANK J. OTERI: Where you connected to Fluxus at all?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: No. I had a number of friends who were Fluxus people. I really like Fluxus! All together it’s totally pleasing. But no, I wasn’t connected to Fluxus.

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