Devanney Haruta, a Ph.D. student at Brown University in Rhode Island, USA, has embarked on a distinctive project that delves into the essence of what renders a musical instrument ‘alive’ or ‘dead,’ and explores the value of sounds in the realm of music.
At the heart of Haruta’s endeavor lies an abandoned Baldwin piano, strategically placed in a wooded area just outside the Orwig Music Building on February 17th, 2023. The piano, left to brave the elements, is destined to remain there until Haruta’s graduation in 2026.
Haruta’s academic journey began with a master’s degree at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she studied various instances of pianos being damaged or destroyed in the name of art. Her inspiration for this degree stems from the work of composer and musician Ross Bolleter.
Bolleter, known for establishing the world’s first Ruined Piano Sanctuary in Australia in 2005, founded the World Association of Ruined Piano Studies (WARPS) and authored a book titled “The Well Weathered Piano.” His exploration of ruined pianos culminated in albums like “Night Kitchen: An Hour of Ruined Pianos.”
Piano (de)composition: A Ph.D. Journey
Now, as part of her Ph.D. at Brown, Haruta has seized the opportunity to conduct her own physical study. The focus is on understanding the gradual deterioration of an acoustic piano and determining the point at which it loses its musical validity. Haruta meticulously documents the physical decay of the Baldwin grand piano, a surplus instrument from the faculty, destined for disposal.
Termed “Piano (de)composition,” the project actively encourages people to play and engage with the piano as it succumbs to decay. Haruta envisions that, as the piano decomposes, students and passers-by will be inspired to discover novel ways to generate musical sounds from the instrument.
Exposed to Rhode Island’s unpredictable weather for approximately 9 months, the piano has weathered snowstorms, rain, hail, record-high temperatures, and flooding. Capturing the attention of onlookers, students, and even squirrels, the piano has noticeably deteriorated, evolving into a unique instrument with an unpredictable quality.
“Every day you go out, it’s a different instrument. That one note that was stuck one time might not be stuck the next day. It has this unpredictability that I think makes it very exciting and lively to engage with,” says Haruta. “The more people interact with it, the more it takes on its own sort of afterlife.”
For a visual representation of the piano’s decay and the creative interactions surrounding it, the “Piano (de)composition” archive webpage showcases photos and videos, capturing the evolving essence of an instrument that, as the project suggests, is not dead yet.