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4.29.22

There’ll Be Music Everywhere

I was skeptical that it was, in fact, Skempton. And who put the piano on Cronig’s porch?

What if this spring brings not only the music of birds and bees, I think, but also that of pianos being played all over the Island?

It hasn’t been a great day for a number of forgettable reasons, and I am trudging up the stairs of Up-Island Cronig’s Market to buy groceries when a man with a wildly electric hairstyle plays a couple of scales on a piano that has been rolled onto the porch of the store. Then he starts loudly playing an intriguing number that lifts my spirits. I ask him the name of the composer. He says something that, to my right-ear’s hearing aid (I’ve misplaced my left-ear’s), sounds like Howard Skempton. When I get home, I listen on YouTube to a half-dozen works by Skempton, an English composer of experimental music. I don’t think the mystery pianist was playing Skempton, some of whose compositions consist solely of repeated chords with no pauses between them.  

Curious about the mystery pianist, I describe his appearance and professional playing to Jack Ryan, who works at the West Tisbury post office and, on breaks, listens to Up-Island upright keyboarders. He suggests Stephen Hart, a composer and pianist: “He plays everything.” Yes, everything. His CD, Steve’s Songs, promises to blend folk, rock, and soul into a “transformation of musical styles.” I call Hart. He says he doesn’t know of Skempton, but he thinks he is the man who was playing at Up-Island Cronig’s. He details his forty-year career performing up to 270 concerts a year with the Ululators, Hart Music Man, and other bands.

“And then Covid hit,” Hart says, “and I haven’t played a concert since.” He has turned to construction work and, over two years on weekends, has built his own home in West Tisbury. He has sold his baby grand. Now he relies on the Up-Island upright piano. Hart says he does “a lot of improvising, playing from my heart and soul, connecting with the higher spirit.”  

But when I seek the story of how the piano wound up on the Up-Island porch for anyone to play, I learn the mystery pianist is someone else. In 2021, David Stanwood, a well-known seventy-one-year-old Island piano technician and innovator, and Andy Herr, a thirty-four-year-old sound engineer and musician with a dream of putting art-decorated pianos on Vineyard streets, placed a South Korean–made Samick piano on Up-Island’s porch, with the permission of Up-Island’s owner. Herr thinks Dean Rosenthal, a composer of experimental music, is the mystery pianist. When I email Rosenthal, he says, yes, I heard him interpreting a minute-long 1973 piece by Skempton called “Rumba.” 

He speaks for more than himself when he explains why he plays the Up-Island upright: “It’s a piano and I love to play!” Stanwood says the piano “makes people happy and brings them together,” helping them cope. Stanwood speaks of the piano as if it’s a conductor: “It’s amazing how the piano can guide you.” Stanwood chooses to improvise in a calm, meditative style on the Samick. He recalls youngsters, shouting and wrestling nearby, suddenly quieting as he improvised: “They were entranced.”  

Decorating the piano before its installation was a community project. On the front, four local artists painted a pond – I like to think my favorite pond, Tisbury Great Pond, but Herr says it’s a “purposely vague” pond. Herr’s mother, Susie Herr, painted and reupholstered the piano’s bench. Herr says he has been trying to place pianos – “there’s a ton of them out there” – across the Vineyard since 2013. He explains the complications: “It has got to work with the business and the neighbors.” Ideally, the business has an overhang to protect the piano from the elements and is in a location that attracts listeners (but doesn’t offend neighbors). We talk about possible locations – the Chilmark Community Center, the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, the Memorial Wharf in Edgartown, and the Scottish Bakehouse in Vineyard Haven. “The more people that are involved in this kind of thing the better,” Herr says. “I’m curious what others think.”  

Later I view MV Street Piano, a Facebook group created by Herr, who was trained as a classical pianist beginning at age three but now plays a variety of instruments for the PickPocket Bluegrass Band. MV Street Piano provides videos of pianists of all ages and skill levels playing everything – jazz, classical, and pop – on the Up-Island upright. I like to believe that whatever the pianist plays, from “Chopsticks” to Chopin, that upright will translate it into mesmerizing magic. What if this spring brings not only the music of birds and bees, I think, but also that of pianos being played all over the Island?