Pianist Plays A Burning Piano in Xenia, Ohio

This photoshoot began as an innocuous question: how could I creatively light and photograph a piano in a way no one else has done before? Pianos are common instruments, but their size limits what you can do with them.

At first I thought, what if I took an off-camera flash and put it inside a grand piano, and triggered it while I took the photograph? There’s all sorts of unusual effects you can create by placing lights in unexpected places around your subject, so I toyed with that idea for a while. Then I wondered, what if I lit the piano from the inside, AND put a block of dry ice inside so the light made the fog glow?

I found out that dry ice would likely damage the delicate wooden and metal parts that make a piano work, which meant that idea was out. It was a short leap to just setting the piano on fire.

Pianos have been set on fire before: in 1968, composer Annea Lockwood wrote a piece called “Piano Burning” that requires a piano to suffer the fate indicated in the title; in 2008, Yƍsuke Yamashita played a burning piano on the beach, dressed in a silvery firefighter’s suit. But what I discovered is that there are no professional photographs of pianists at a flaming piano.

This was the impetus I needed to make this project a reality. First, I needed a piano. The average piano’s size means they’re quite inconvenient when they’re no longer wanted–finding someone offering one for free in exchange for removal wasn’t difficult. I borrowed a trailer, and with some heavy logistics and lifting both, the piano was transported to its final resting place: the burn pile patch on my mother-in-law’s property south of Xenia.

Next order of business was to recruit the pianist. I already had someone in mind, a friend who grew up with my husband whom I suspected might be amenable to sitting down in front of an instrument swallowed by flames. Thankfully, Matt was indeed amenable to sitting down in front of an instrument swallowed by flames. The only condition was that I disable the hazard contained within the piano–its strings. Pianos are such infernally heavy objects because of their solid iron internal frames, or harps. These harps hold hundreds of strings exerting about 36,000 pounds of pressure.

This required several hours of painstakingly loosening and then cutting around 250 strings. Since it was Fourth of July weekend, my husband Steve took the opportunity halfway through string disassembly to pound out some clunking, jangling, nearly unrecognizable bars from “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Preparations were complete, lightstands were in place, and our pianist was dressed to the nines and ready to perform. The only step left was to light the piano. This proved more difficult than I expected. (Although, perhaps it’s a comfort to know a giant piece of well-dried wood could not easily catch fire.) Eventually enough tinder and lighter fluid prevailed, and we were off to the races.

The fire was underwhelming at first, a few flames here and there but mostly smoke. I circled the piano as Matt obligingly plunked the now-dead keys. There was nothing left to do but wait until that precarious point in time when the flames were substantial enough to make a worthwhile photo, but before they threatened our intrepid pianist.

I completely lost track of time, as we all got caught up in the giddiness of creative destruction, but afterwards I discovered that the whole event took less than 45 minutes. The whole time, Matt carried on a gleeful narration of the pieces he happened to be “playing.”

There finally came a point where the smoke was pouring out of the keyboard so thickly that it obscured Matt’s hands. He stepped away after one last flourish, and the piano succumbed to its fate.

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