Bonfire of the Ivories: Visualize Your Piano—Burning

Piano Burning

image by Matthias Wassermann

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Composer Annea Lockwood is professor emeritus at Vassar College. Piano Burning, which she describes below, is part of her Piano Transplants series, which also includes Piano Drowning, Piano Garden, and Southern Exposure.

If you have an old microphone you can afford to burn up, put it in the base of an upright piano. Piano burning should really be done with an upright piano; the structure is much more beautiful than that of a grand when you watch it burn. The piano must always be one that’s irretrievable, that nobody could work on, that no tuner or rebuilder could possibly bring back. It’s got to be a truly defunct piano.

So place your microphone, run it out to a recording device, and put a little wad of paper soaked in something flammable down in one corner of the piano. Don’t sprinkle lighter fluid or any flammable liquid over the whole piano. Götterdämmerung is not what we’re after. Start the piano burning with quite a small flame, just a little bit in one corner, and slowly the flames will spread through the whole structure and as they do, they burn away one layer of the structure after another, until finally you get down to the harp and it’s absolutely beautiful to watch. Often I suggest that people overstring the strings, so when they pop they really resonate.

It takes a long time, instant conflagration not being the idea; piano burning can take up to three hours. The flames are the most beautiful colors because of the different varnishes on the instrument, so you get violets and greens as well as reds and oranges. Sometimes I’ve seen smoke just spiraling up from between the keys. And the sounds are terrific. That’s piano burning.


Excerpted from an interview by Daniel Beban in White Fungus (#9), an experimental arts magazine;