BOSTON — Walking around the Boston area this weekend, you might hear the tinkling of ivories.
Follow that sound and you’ll likely discover one of 75 painted pianos. They’ve been placed on street corners and in parks as part of “Play Me, I’m Yours," a five-year-old international public art project that kicks off its Boston leg Friday to celebrate Celebrity Series of Boston’s 75th season.
“Play Me, I’m Yours” is a title, but it’s also an invitation to make music in unlikely places. Boston is joining the list of 36 other cities by agreeing to scatter pianos — in our case beautified by an all-ages army of New England artists enlisted via Craigslist and other avenues — throughout its urban landscape. But Boston has the honor of playing host to the global effort's 1,000th piano.
A few weeks ago I met with Somerville artist Michael Crockett as he added some finishing touches to that milestone piano. He was surrounded by dozens of donated spinets and uprights being painted by other artists in a vast warehouse space on Boston's waterfront.
Crockett collaborated with his art partner, a graphic illustrator known as Eyeformation, to dream up the look for the baby grand. In the end, they decided on bright colors, city icons and cartoonish characters.
"There’s a lot of magentas, there’s primary yellows and cyan in here," he explained. "It should stand out like a sore thumb if I did my job right."
The eye-popping piano is actually destined for a rather monochrome backdrop: City Hall Plaza. Crockett said he can't wait to visit it there so he can hang back to watch and listen as strangers check it out.
He predicted it would be very different from what he’s used to when people look at his work in a gallery.
"I do feel a lot of emotions when I see somebody interpreting what I’m doing," he said, "but when I get to see somebody actually apply their talents to it, I think that’s what I’m going to take out of it the most."
Crockett also said he plans to bring his musician friends to the baby grand every afternoon at 5 p.m. so they can jam. He plays drums and guitar, but not really the piano.
"But I sit here at night every once in a while and play the three chords that I know," the artist admitted before demonstrating with a little Motley Crue.
'A Way To Break Down Social Barriers'
"I think the artists have done an amazing job, and I think the public are going to be very grateful," Luke Jerram, the creator of “Play Me, I’m Yours,” told me.
The British artist flew to Boston this week to see the 75 painted pianos being installed. We watched as movers shifted a ragtime-inspired upright painted by an artist known as Pampi from a truck into the alcove beneath the marquee at the historic Strand Theatre in Dorchester. Once the piano was in place, Jerram touched the keys.
"Sounds good. It’s a relief, you know?" Jerram said, laughing. "Sometimes you go, ‘Oh, God, it’s out of tune. Christ, if these aren’t in tune then none of them are going to be in tune.' No, these are very good."
Jerram has been traveling the world doing this since “Play Me, I’m Yours” debuted in 2008.
"I never thought the project would expand to this level," he said. "Some art projects, they last for a week or two, or might go for three or four, but this has gotten completely out of hand with 1,000 pianos installed in 37 cities around the world. It is a bit weird."
Now Jerram says 80 cities are clamoring for pianos of their own.
This whole idea started when Jerram and the city of Birmingham, England, had money left over from a public art project that literally never got off the ground. The plan was to strap speakers to a hot air balloon and fly Birmingham Symphony Orchestra musicians overhead. High winds forced them to cancel and Jerram needed a new plan. Then the artist had an epiphany at the laundromat where he’d see the same people every week; he realized they never talked to each other. So Jerram decided to set up painted pianos in parks and public spaces such as train stations.
"So the piano is there for people to be creative, but it’s also a way to break down social barriers and get people talking," he mused. "And the nice thing about a piano also is you can get three or four people playing at once."
Watch the making of the 1,000th piano:
Melody Green would love if that happened at the Strand. She's the theater's manager and told me the surrounding community doesn't see enough of the arts.
"It’s awesome that people can actually play it, and that it’s not just something [that you] sit there and look at," Green said. "So I’m excited to see how many people actually go by and kind of tinker with it."
But Jerram, who’s not a trained pianist, said people sometimes do more than tinker. He recalled watching a mother cry in São Paulo, Brazil, as she watched her daughter play a song. She told Jerram she cleaned houses for years to pay for lessons across town, and they didn’t have a piano at home.
"So that was the first time that her mother had gotten to see her daughter play the piano," he said. "And it was a really touching experience and actually that piano is still in the train station now, five years later; the train station loved it so much they put pianos in all the other train stations around São Paulo.
"I suppose the nature of this project has changed some people’s lives, you know? It’s an ambition for all artists, if you can make people cry with happiness — now that’s what you’re aiming for," he told me, laughing.
But of course Jerram also aims to stoke curiosity. So I decided to watch people walk by the piano at the Strand Theatre. Most ignored the sign that beckons, “Play Me, I’m Yours.” Maybe because the piano sits away from the street, slightly sheltered under the marquee. But then a young, wide-eyed woman stopped, wandered over and touched the keys.
"What does it do, nothing?" she wondered. "Is it scary? Spooky? Does it play by itself?"
Medina Phillips said she's 22 years old and lives up the street.
"I think it’s pretty cool. I want to learn how to play. A couple of notes. It’s going to be pretty hard, but I want to learn." And then she uttered a phrase a lot of people seem to associate with Jerram's piano project: "It’s awesome."
Medina also said she will definitely come back to play the piano. And who knows, there’s a chance it could become permanent. The dozens of host sites and organizations have the option of keeping their painted piano, but only if someone else hasn’t already put dibs on it.
“Play Me, I’m Yours” runs through Oct. 14. Here's a map of all piano locations. There will be a performance on the Strand Theatre piano today (Friday) from 3:30-4:30 p.m.
Listen to the audio version of this story below:
This program aired on September 27, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.