Workshop: Key Bored

Tiffany Lin pulls apart the piano and makes something new in This Old Piano.

Tiffany Lin is frustrated with the piano. So she’s spending all this month ripping two of them apart. It sounds like a musician’s revenge fantasy, but it’s a major Seattle art and performance project called This Old Piano. By disassembling the pianos and rebuilding them as two distinct instruments, she hopes to solve the problems they present.

Tiffany Lin removes hammers from the piano that Colin Ernst will eventually turn into a new creation. “I’m getting to know its intimate parts,” she says, laughing. Photograph by Andrew Waits for City Arts.

“I have been having such a hard time with the piano,” Lin says. “You always go someplace to play and it’s a different instrument that plays differently. And just finding one to put into my house was a huge headache. So I had the idea to, you know, make it smaller.” As Lin ruminated on that seed of an idea, she quickly peeled back the layers of her displeasure with the instrument and came up with the idea for This Old Piano.

In some ways, Lin, twenty-eight, has no problem with pianos. Trained as a solo classical pianist since age five, she was turned on to experimentation at Cal Arts in Valencia. She was inspired to transfer to Seattle’s Cornish College, where, in 1940, experimentalist John Cage famously introduced the “prepared piano,” challenging the primacy of the instrument by placing forks in it. Lin followed in the composer’s footsteps, playing “off the keyboard,” getting inside the piano to pluck and maneuver the strings. After graduating in 2007, she began laying the groundwork for This Old Piano.

“The next step just naturally felt like, break it down,” she says. “This instrument is innocence complete. No one’s really messed with the piano for lots and lots of years. You look at this instrument and it can be a string instrument, it can be a percussive instrument, with the hammers, it can be so many things. This instrument is so complex, but it can just make this one sound. What if we had it make all these different sounds?”

Lin intends to answer that question through This Old Piano, which has been funded by the Jack Straw Foundation, Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and Allied Arts. She hired instrument designers Colin Ernst and Hugo Solis to tear apart one piano each and build an entirely new instrument using only the materials from the disemboweled machines. Composers Jherek Bischoff and Tom Baker will write compositions for each instrument that Lin will play at Jack Straw Studios and New Media Gallery later this spring. 

In the midst of the project, in which Lin is helping to pull apart the instrument she has sat at alone for so many years, the performance seems almost secondary. 

“This has become a great way for me to be social with other artists,” she says. “I think that part of it was just me wanting to work with other people. This is something I couldn’t do alone. Even if I had the imagination to do what these guys do, I don’t know how to use a drill.” •