By Marcy Stamper
Where do old pianos go when they die? In some cases, they go to Twisp, judging from the sticky note affixed to an ancient upright transported to the Methow on a hay trailer for a new life in a “piano garden.”
The piano garden is the vision of Howard Johnson, a local electrical engineer with the spunk to take on the logistical challenges of moving 10 pianos across the Cascades, as well as the aesthetic vision to repurpose them as sculpture.
This is not Johnson’s first grand initiative linking music and art. As a board member of the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival, about six years ago Johnson embarked on the conversion of a massive barn on his property to a concert venue. He removed the horse stalls and half of the hayloft and replaced the sand floor with crushed rock he had carefully calibrated for optimal acoustics for classical music.
During this summer’s festival – the fifth in the converted barn – Johnson said Winthrop pianist and composer Lynette Westendorf mentioned her wistfulness that many pianos that are no longer musically viable just end up in the trash.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for years,” said Westendorf. “I’ve wanted to have people bring me all the old pianos that were getting ready to go into the dump and let them deteriorate into my property,” but she realized she did not have a suitable site. “Howie just picked up on it,” she said.
The two expected it would take years to amass the pianos and dreaded hauling them out of people’s basements, but the piano tuner for the music festival connected Johnson with Prosser Piano & Organ, which was closing one of its oldest warehouses near Seattle and needed to dispose of the contents. “It was stuffed with ancient pianos they had hoped they’d get around to restoring,” said Johnson.
Prosser Piano identified about 20 candidates from the late-19th and early-20th centuries for Johnson’s project. He selected 10 pianos, which he transported to his ranch in two separate trips in August, stacked and strapped to his trailer.
Prosser’s professional piano movers at the loading dock were “sort of horrified” and urged him to cover the pianos with a tarp to protect them on the journey over the mountains, said Johnson. “They were glad to get the warehouse emptied, but felt some remorse about the pianos,” he said.
Once he got to Twisp, in an unconventional approach to piano moving, Johnson rigged up his tractor and cinched the pianos with beefy chains to transfer each one from the trailer to his field.
Westendorf came to see the relocated pianos and managed to coax a player piano, which still had an original – but badly damaged – piano roll, to play. She recorded “ghost snippets” of what she ultimately recognized as Scott Joplin’s popular ragtime piece “The Entertainer.” By now, the keys have swelled from rain and the instruments are probably no longer playable, said Johnson.
Johnson envisions turning the pianos into their own sculptural installation. “Some people have turned pianos into bars, or used them in gardens as planters or fountains, but they’re usually an accent piece in an otherwise nice garden,” he said.
While the concept for the piano garden is still a work-in-progress, Johnson said he wants to allow the pianos to disintegrate from exposure to the weather. After the wood rots, he hopes to dig up the metal harps that hold the strings and to use them in another work of art. “It’s a bold and thoughtful statement about the end of things – and their rebirth,” he said.
Some people have suggested painting the pianos different colors. Johnson expects they will be somewhere on his ranch, accessible to festival-goers. “I want the pianos to be together, in one place,” he said. He has special plans for one gleaming grand piano, which he intends to photograph in different locations around the valley in each season.
When he describes the project, Johnson said many people have been reminded of “Cadillac Ranch,” an installation of 10 Cadillacs embedded in the ground, with their rear fins protruding, near Amarillo, Texas.
Unlike some musical instruments, such as prized Stradivarius violins from the 17th and 18th centuries, pianos do not improve with age, and most reach the end of their usable life after several decades, said Johnson. While it might be possible to restore them, it would be a major undertaking. Johnson pointed out that each key has about 40 parts – leather, washers, wood and ivory, meaning at least 3,520 separate components – just in the keyboard.
“People understand that a piano goes through a life-cycle and, when done, it’s not useful as an instrument,” said Johnson. “It’s kind of shocking, yet it’s not offensive – I like that about it.”
In addition to two player pianos, Johnson rescued two square grand pianos, three uprights, a grand piano with no innards, and two shiny demo models that show the keyboard and other mechanisms.
“These are cultural icons, beyond being musical instruments,” said Johnson. “This inevitably will appeal to a certain Methow crowd – the juxtaposition of pianos and nature. And it will be more interesting if it evolves over time.”