At exactly noon on Thursday, 30 pianists sitting at 30 colorful pianos scattered at public spaces throughout Los Angeles County will simultaneously break into the first prelude of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." The so-called play-in will mark the Southern California debut of a globally oriented public art project called "Play Me, I'm Yours."
But the real fun won't begin until after the opening performances have finished. That's when the pianos — in locations that include L.A. Live and Monterey Park, USC and UCLA, as well as Santa Monica Pier and Old Pasadena — become available to the public, for anyone and everyone to play 24 hours a day for the next three weeks. Kids can bang out "Chopsticks"; students can practice for recitals; pros can demonstrate Rachmaninoff.
The point is simple: Bring communities together through random acts of public music.
"The idea of taking an instrument that's most commonly associated with living rooms and big concert halls and putting it outside sort of captivates the imagination," says Rachel Fine, executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which is bringing "Play Me, I'm Yours" to Los Angeles. "I am a firm believer that music is for everyone."
They're not talking about abandoning your grandma's dusty old upright in the middle of Chinatown. The chamber orchestra spent more than a year preparing for this day, spending much of that time finding local artists and community organizations to decorate the pianos, most of which were donated by Hollywood Piano Co..
That's right — per the vision of British artist Luke Jerram, who conceived of "Play Me, I'm Yours" back in 2008 in his native England: The pianos become the works of art. Tricked out, jazzed up, prettified and bejeweled, they're transformed completely by the end of the process. Some look like arts-and-crafts projects; others contain fabulously colorful murals, of mermaids and cityscapes, human body parts and Chinese dragons, painted on their panels. (Don't worry about rain; each piano has a protective plastic cover.)
It serves to make the pianos "less precious, more tactile and engaging," Jerram says. It also them makes more attractive after the exhibition ends May 3, when the pianos are either donated to schools and community groups or auctioned off.
Fine first began reading about "Play Me, I'm Yours" in 2010, when it was having its U.S. debut in New York. It wasn't long before she and her team were reaching out to Jerram.
Jerram receives calls like that all the time, usually twice a week. In the past four years, he's taken "Play Me, I'm Yours" to more than 20 locations, including Sao Paulo, Brazil; New York; Sydney, Australia; and Geneva. Jerram immediately liked the idea of Los Angeles.
"I've actually never been to Los Angeles, but I have this image of a lot of unemployed actors desperate to present their talent to the public — online, on the streets," Jerram says. "I think this is a great opportunity to present themselves. Like a giant 'X Factor' audition."
He gave the OK — and a year later, when he saw the press release detailing the extent of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's vision, he was shocked.
"It'll be the largest, most complex and ambitious project to date," Jerram says of his Southern California debut.
Other places, including New York, have had more pianos, and a very similar though unaffiliated exhibition ran in Orange County last year called "OC Can You Play?" But according to Jerram, no "Play Me, I'm Yours," or its many imitators, has so pervaded the breadth of its community. The orchestra involved prominent local artists such as Frank Cubillos and Evan Skrederstu, organizations such as the Braille Institute of America and several youth centers in its efforts.
"I was thrilled about the opportunity," says Cubillos, who decorated two pianos, one for the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica and another for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Music is a theme that runs in a lot of my artwork. The opportunity to paint the piano was something I've never done."
The installation will coincide with the 15th anniversary of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's music director, Jeffrey Kahane, a pianist and L.A. native. During Thursday's opening ceremony, Kahane will play the piano decorated by the Braille Institute, its colorful, textured polka dots symbolizing the written language of the blind. Kahane believes everybody can take part in "Play Me, I'm Yours."
"It's the most democratic instrument," Kahane says. "The piano is the musical instrument that any person of any age and any ability can walk up to and put their fingers on and make a beautiful sound."
Fine wants to see people making music on these pianos and uploading videos to the website streetpianos.com/la2012 24 hours a day for the full three weeks they're out. She'll be doing her part.
"My daughter plays the cello," Fine says. "I'm going to take her out, and we're going to play duets."