Play Me, I’m Yours: Austin 2011

Street Pianos

On Wednesday, when I walked up to the post office, I stumbled across a couple of pianos. The first one was on the Drake Bridge. A guy was playing it and, this being Austin, I took him for a busker. Later at City Hall, I heard a piano on the concert steps, turned the corner expecting to see a lunch concert but no one was there but the pianist. I felt sorry for him until I discovered that he wasn’t playing professionally; he was just fooling around on one of fourteen pianos left around town as part of an interactive art installation, Play Me, I’m Yours: Austin 2011. I went home, read up about the project on the Internet, and decided to spend Friday tracking down all fourteen pianos.

The Game Layer

Taking a page from all the SXSWi talks I heard this year on applying a game layer to the real world, I set up a trip in Gowalla. Does the real world need a game layer? Aren’t people walking around with their smart phones in front of their faces missing out on the immediacy of the reality around them?I know people who feel that even taking photographs on a vacation removes them from really participating in the moment. But I’m just the opposite.

When I don’t have my camera, I’m typically just a passerby. I walk by people and places without noticing them, lost in my own thoughts. Put a camera in my hands and I become an observer. I start looking for the evocative image. Thanks to blogs and Twitter, I’ve moved from recording (documenting a personal history) to reporting (sharing a story and finding elements that will interest others). This project moved me up another level: participating. I talked with other people who were making the rounds. I plunked out the few notes that I could remember from piano lessons 40 years ago and in the course of the day lost self-consciousness about doing so. I even posed for someone else’s photo.
Creating the trip in Gowalla gave me the boost out the door I needed this morning. Without a fixed set of clearly defined goals, my idea of going to see all the pianos would have remained one of those things that would have been nice to do but left undone. I imagined myself a pilgrim, like the Japanese pilgrims who visit the 88 Holy Sites of Shikoku and get a stamp at each one. Taking a photograph and checking into Gowalla, forced me to visit all the sites and to spend some time trying to find the most interesting element of each.

The entire trip took me 7 1/2 hours. I lingered. I took a couple of coffee shop breaks. In some of the less-populated sites, I tried to remember some of the songs I used to play at home when I was a teen. There is a bit of muscle memory left after all these years but it is faint. Without Gowalla motivating me with little goals to check off (only three more to go–just do it), I probably wouldn’t have visited every single piano. But I did. And I felt proud of myself. Maybe the game layer has more value than I thought. It is fun to have a goal. And to complete it.

LOU NEFF POINT

The most serene experience. I’ve never played a piano outdoors before. What a pleasure it was looking out over the lake. I felt sorry for the morning commuters stuck in traffic on the Lamar Bridge.
street piano Lou Neff Point

PFLUGER BRIDGE

The most popular piano. I stumbled into the middle of a movie or music-video shoot.
street piano Pfluger Bridge

PFLUGER BRIDGE GARDEN

The best-loved piano.

street piano Pfluger Bridge Garden

SHOAL BEACH

street piano Shoal Beach

W AUSTIN HOTEL

The most sterile piano.

street piano W Hotel

WOOLRIDGE SQUARE PARK

street piano Woolridge Square Park></p>
<h4>TRAVIS COUNTY JUSTICE COMPLEX</h4>
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The stickiest piano. I suspect candy-eating children. My fingers kept sticking to the keys. This spot didn’t have much of a view but I felt free to play here a long time because the lawyers were all too busy rushing to and fro to pay attention to me. I was alone in a crowd.
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DUNCAN PARK

The most forlorn piano. This one was hidden deep in the bowels of the BMX bike park. It looked as if someone had tried to pry it apart and a dozen of the keys were missing their ivory.

street piano Duncan Park

FROST BANK TOWER

The noisiest spot. Traffic from Congress Avenue drowned out the piano.

street piano Frost Bank Tower

AUSTIN CITY HALL

The freshest coat of paint. It had been painted orange since I saw it on Wednesday.

street piano Austin City Hall

DRAKE BRIDGE

street piano Drake Bridge

FANNIE DAVIS GAZEBO

street piano Fannie Davis Gazebo

LONG CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

The best hidden piano. I thought it would be on the terrace over-looking Lady Bird Lake which would have provided a fantastic view. However, other events take place there so it was hidden around the corner.

street piano Long Center

DOUG SAHM HILL

I ended my journey on a high.

street piano Doug Sahm Hill

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The surface and beneath the surface