Friday, 6 July 2012

Listen to Me, Talk to Me

 Sometimes I hear my own voice in my head.

"What on earth are you doing Libby?" says the voice. "I'm not quite sure," I reply.
"Are those pink tights you are wearing with that pink dress?" says Inside-My-Head Libby.
"Of course," says I.

And so on.

It is not normal, however, for me to have piano music in my head. So when I heard the sound of a piano whilst I sat in Hanover Square yesterday eating my lunch, I decided to look up from my book.

There on the other side of the square was a piano, at which sat a grey-haired man making magic with the keys. I sat and listened to him, transfixed, until he finished playing, stood up and walked out of the square.

This summer London has been invaded by pianos. From Southwark to St Pancras, second hand pianos have been decorated, installed and left for anyone to play (and listen). It's all in the name. as this is an art installation entitled, 'Play Me, I'm Yours'.

Luke Jerram is the artist behind the venture that started in Birmingham in 2008 and has since seen (and heard) street pianos popping up in public spaces across the globe, from Sao Paulo to Sydney.

The thought behind the project is as compelling as the sound of a piano playing unexpectedly in the heart of a city.

"The idea for 'Play Me, I'm Yours' came from visiting my local launderette," says Jerram on his website, "I saw the same people there each weekend and yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realised that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence. Placing a piano into the space was my solution to this problem, acting as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space."

I grew up in a tiny town in Dorset, so one of the biggest changes about moving to London was getting used to not saying "Hello" to everyone I passed in the street. Cities are full of people, but they can also be surprisingly lonely places when those people avoid talking to each other like people with peanut allergies avoid peanut butter.

Last term I had the fascinating experience of interviewing Polly Akhurst who is organising a campaign this summer called 'Talk to Me London' which aims to get people in the capital talking to each other - starting on the London underground. Of all the places in London, the tube is by far the most depressing and the least communicative - eye contact is strictly forbidden and conversation is out of the question - so it was incredibly encouraging to hear about Talk to Me's campaign.

One of the things I found interesting about the project was Polly's thoughts on conversations themselves. As she said to me, we tend to associate conversations with very specific things: creating a romantic relationship or building a business contact, perhaps. But why can't we just enjoy conversation for conversation's sake?

I think that a similar attitude can tend to prevail with music. When I was young I learnt the piano - I had lessons for around eight years. But despite the many hours of lessons I had (with a lovely teacher amusingly named James Brown whose patience knew no bounds), I never really progressed that far with my playing, because I didn't see the use for it. I stopped taking lessons when I was in sixth form, as I became increasingly busy with my studies and didn't see how piano-playing would help me in my future career.

I realise now that I was missing the point. Music is a way of enriching your life, even more so if music doesn't have anything to do with your life.

And you never know when there might be a piano randomly placed in a public space and you will find yourself wishing you had tried harder in your music lessons.

I wasn't able to sit and play the piano in Hanover Square, but instead I sat and enjoyed the sound of the man who could. Our reluctance to talk to one another is one of the downsides to living in London, but so is the way we forget to take time to listen to each other too. This is a city full of stories and talent and interesting people with interesting stories - we just need to make the time to hear them.


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