The pianos wept in the rain. They shimmered in the autumn twilight of an empty meadow, crouched near cheetahs at Franklin Park Zoo and waited shyly behind Old North Church, where Paul Revere hoisted his warning signal about the invasive British.
Seventy-five instruments beckoned to Emerson College senior James Kennedy, and the Charlotte native responded by playing a song or sonata at each of them over one glorious October weekend. Emerson freshman Jackson Davis captured Kennedy’s keyboard adventure in “75 Pianos,” an 11-minute documentary posted recently on Vimeo.
Kennedy’s former classmates at Northwest School of the Arts may not be surprised at the 22-year-old’s whimsical persistence. But Kennedy, who’ll graduate from Emerson in May with a B.A. in theater studies, sees his 48-hour binge as a voyage of discovery.
“The project made me think about how grateful I am that my parents (Charlotte’s Michael Kennedy and Diane Zablotsky) forced me to take lessons. Music brings people together. We say that offhandedly, but to see all these people show up on Boston Common to sing ‘Sweet Caroline’ while I played was amazing. Kids ran up to the piano to try it themselves as soon as we left, and that was awesome.”
Metaphorically, he took 74 people on the journey. He chose only one song himself: “It Might As Well Be Spring,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score to “State Fair.” He solicited the other titles on Facebook and ended up playing works by everyone from Franz Liszt to Noel Coward to Ray Charles.
“I wanted at least stuff I’d heard of,” says Kennedy. “Someone requested a Rachmaninov concerto, and I didn’t think I could just dust one of those off. People sent me their dad’s favorite song, or their wedding song, or the song their family always sings together. Using those reminded me why I love to do what I do.”
Physically, he went around with five people: director Davis and his four-person, two-camera crew.
“I knew James’ face, because he’s an R.A. (resident assistant) in my building, but I didn’t really know him,” says the director. “When I saw the Facebook post, I instinctively signed up. Three days later, we were shooting. I’ve never done anything so spontaneous before.”
The pianos were set around Boston from Sept. 27 to Oct. 14 in the touring art exhibit “Play Me, I’m Yours.” (Charlotteans may remember a similar exhibit of outsized rocking chairs around Mecklenburg County in 2001.) The public could admire outsized or outlandish decorations – for instance, a massive easel atop a piano at the Museum of Fine Arts – and whale away at the keyboards.
Over time, weather and abuse left some instruments with silent keys and broken pedals. Kennedy didn’t care. He grabbed a map to the 75 locations, rented a Zipcar to reach the outliers and saw the rest of the city on the T (Boston’s subway) and shoe leather.
“One cool thing was discovering how many different neighborhoods and communities there are in Boston,” he says. “Students tend to stick around campus or visit friends in places where students live, so I’d just seen a little of South End and Cambridge. Now I was landing at a (suburban) farmer’s market or learning about neighborhoods on foot.”
“The map wasn’t always helpful,” says Davis. “It told us, ‘There’s a piano at the zoo.’ The zoo’s a big place.” Kennedy found it overlooking the cheetahs’ enclosure, and they paced as he played.
Other obstacles? Wet weather. Pianos that were already occupied. (“A lot of people would get out of the way when they saw a camera crew, but I wouldn’t ask them to leave,” says Kennedy. “The song I wanted to play was no more important than the one someone else was playing.”) And postgame foot traffic around Fenway Park.
“Wading through thousands of Red Sox fans was a struggle I never expected to encounter,” says Kennedy. (Boston was hosting Tampa Bay in the American League playoffs.) “There was one piano in front of the park and another by the Kenmore T stop. The fans were pretty plastered at that point, and they kept requesting songs. We were there half an hour; the film crew had gone, so it was just me and three friends. All of a sudden, people started leaving five- and ten-dollar tips.”
Were there benefits? Well, he got to play instruments no one has seen before or since. Boston Children’s Museum replaced the board where you’d prop a song sheet with Plexiglas, then attached puppets to the hammers; as he struck the keys, the puppets danced.
And Kennedy walked away with long-lasting confidence: “As I moved into finals week, I thought, ‘I can knock out this term paper, no problem. If I can play 75 pianos in one weekend, I know I can do that.’”
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