When a Piano Dies

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Devanney Haruta, a Ph.D. student at the prestigious Brown University (Rhode Island, USA), has embarked on a project seeking to answer the questions, “What makes a musical instrument ‘alive’ or ‘dead?”, and “What kind of sounds have value in the world of music?”.

Photo showing the Baldwin piano located amongst a clump of trees
The newly installed Baldwin piano back in February 2023. Photo: D. Haruta.

At the centre of the project is an unwanted Baldwin piano. It was placed in a wooded area just outside the faculty’s Orwig Music Building on February 17th, 2023. Here the piano will remain, exposed to the elements, until Haruta graduates in 2026.

Haruta’s master’s degree was at Wesleyan University (Connecticut), and her thesis examined various case studies in which pianos were damaged or destroyed in the name of art. Haruta cites composer and musician Ross Bolleter as the prime inspiration for this degree.

Bolleter set up the world’s first Ruined Piano Sanctuary in Australia in 2005 (see WPN article). He previously founded the World Association of Ruined Piano Studies (WARPS), wrote a book entitled The Well Weathered Piano, and has recorded several albums including Night Kitchen: An Hour of Ruined Pianos.

Piano (de)composition

Now, as part of her Ph.D. at Brown, Haruta has been given the opportunity to run her own physical study. Haruta wants to establish how a piano deteriorates over time, and at what point it is no longer musically valid. To this end, she is meticulously documenting the physical decline of an acoustic piano, and the thoughts, reactions and creative ideas of those using the instrument.

Photo showing the decayed piano being played by Devanney Harutha. The piano has delaminated and the lid has rippled.
Devanney Haruta plays the decomposing Baldwin piano. Photo: N. Dentamaro/Brown University.

The piano itself is an old Baldwin grand piano belonging to the faculty, but it was surplus to requirements and destined for the dump!

The project is known as “Piano (de)composition”, and Haruta is actively encouraging people to play and interact with the piano as it rots. She hopes that as the piano decays students will be inspired to find new ways to create musical sounds from the instrument.

Close-up photo of the keyboard. The key tops of the black notes have all unstuck and fallen away.
Photo: N. Dentamaro/Brown University.

The piano has now been in situ for some 9 months. The Rhode Island weather varies wildly, and so far the piano has endured snowstorms, rain, hail, record-high temperatures and flooding. It has received much attention from passers-by, students, and even squirrels. And as the images show it has deteriorated considerably.

“Every day you go out, it’s a different instrument. That one note that was stuck one time might not be stuck the next day. It has this unpredictability that I think makes it very exciting and lively to engage with.””The more people interact with it, the more it takes on its own sort of afterlife.”

Devanney Haruta (2023).
Photo showing the decaying piano covered in leaves.
Photo: D. Haruta

More photos illustrating the decay of the instrument along with various videos showing how people are using the piano as it decomposes are published on the “Piano de(composition)” archive webpage.

It’s not dead yet.



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