Behind the Scenes at This Old Piano

Photographs by Andrew Waits

Late one mid-March evening, pianist Tiffany Lin invited City Arts to the Georgetown studio space where she and a pair of instrument-makers had been busy disassembling two retired upright pianos with the goal of creating two unique instruments out of their parts.

Instrument-maker Colin Ernst had already made good headway on his piano, organizing the parts of the complex machine along the western wall of the studio.

Standing in front of the partially-gutted piano being worked on by Ernst, Lin attempts to untangle its mass of piano strings or, as she calls it, “piano hair.”

Two helpers tried to untangle the hair with unsatisfying results.

There was little room for delicacy as Ernst disemboweled his charge. While this is his first time taking on a piano, the metal worker has much experience building inventive instruments for the Degenerate Art Ensemble. He also plays trombone in the based in the  Balkan-inspired, mobile, brass-and-drum band Orchestar Zirkonium.

Ernst looks over the main body of what will be a new instrument. Asked if he has blueprints, he points to his head and laughs somewhat maniacally, only saying that his plan is to make something like a “hurdy-gurdy on acid.”

Ernst and Lin met after the instrument-maker answered one of many notices she posted searching for instrument makers to join her project.

Lin admited that she is getting more than she bargained for with This Old Piano. Originally intending only to direct the project and then play on the instruments, the 28-year-old artist was getting her hands dirty, removing hammers from Ernst’s piano. “I guess I didn’t think I would be doing this,” she said. “I’ve never dissected the anatomy of a piano. I’ve always been disappointed that I didn’t know my gear the way, like, a drummer knows his gear. I feel like I’m learning something. I’m getting to know its intimate parts.”

The instruments made by Ernst and fellow instrument maker Hugo Solis will be on display at the New Media Gallery at Jack Straw Productions in Seattle, April 19-May 14. Tiffany Lin will perform compositions created for the new instruments by composers Jherek Bischoff and Tom Baker on a date yet to be determined. Keep an eye on the This Old Piano blog for that date and more.