Sometime this Monday, crews of movers quietly escorted 12 loudly painted pianos from their perches up and down State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, bringing to a close two weeks of spontaneous, impromptu musical congregations by clusters of musicians and non-musicians alike. This was the eighth year the pianos have graced State Street as part of an art installation plot hatched by Notes for Notes in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Bowl, the Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative, the Downtown Organization, and the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture, among others. At two weeks, it was the longest installation to date.
The pianos started when Rod Hare and Phil Gilley of Notes for Notes were drinking beers at Palazzio on State Street. They were talking about a similar project that started in London and then moved to New York City. Why not, they wondered, Santa Barbara? Hare and Gilley called then-arts-czar Ginny Brush; they worked the phones. The city’s much-feared red tape didn’t prove as formidable as expected. From conception to grand unveiling took less than a year. Initially, Hare said, city officials insisted the pianos be taken in every night. “You know, there was concern about flaming piano races down the middle of State Street,” joked Hare.
In the first year, the pianos were out only four days. Over time, the event’s grown. Last year it was 10 days. This year, it was 14. Hare talks about a couple driving a Harley down State wearing matching black leather outfits and helmets. “They ride up, park their bikes, sit down next to each other, and start playing,” he recalled. “Then they got up and drove off. They never took their helmets off.” In recent years, professional musicians like Zach Gill have made it a point to play and sing. There are school choirs; operas are performed. Total strangers swap riffs. “There’s something about a piano,” ruminated Hare. “It’s like part of the American living room. It’s a place where people come together.”
Hare said the project costs about $10,000 a year to put on. To quantify the impact, he said, is to miss the point. “To measure it would somehow damage it,” he said. “It’s whimsy. It’s a thing. Something happens.”