Piano burning is the act of setting on fire an acoustic piano, most commonly an upright, as either a ceremony or a form of performance art. Although piano burning ceremonies are now popular in the Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and the United States Air Force, there is little or no evidence to suggest that descriptions of its origin have any historical authenticity. According to one version of its origin, pianos were set alight by RAF pilots to avoid piano lessons aimed at improving their dexterity and general level of culture. Another version is that piano burning began in World War II in remembrance of fallen RAF pilots. Several contemporary musicians, including Annea Lockwood, Yōsuke Yamashita, and Diego Stocco, have composed for and performed on pianos which have been deliberately set alight. A burning piano was also the centrepiece of Douglas Gordon's 2012 video installation, The End of Civilisation.
Ceremonial piano burning
In The Phantom in Focus: A Navigator's Eye on Britain's Cold War Warrior, David Gledhill recounts a combat training exercise in Germany during the Cold War where Jaguar pilots from RAF Wildenrath and RAF Bruggen had the task of destroying a piano placed on Nordhorn Ridge with a single practice bomb. Because the target was so small, it was only the last Jaguar on the last flight of the exercise that finally managed to hit it. The pilots from both bases celebrated that evening at RAF Wildenrath by burning a second piano in the Officers' Mess. Although piano burning has become popular with air forces and especially the Royal Air Force since World War II, its origin is undocumented and has been the subject of myth and decades of storytelling.
One of the most common legends traces its origin to the British Royal Air Force sometime between World War I and II when so many pilots died during World War I that the RAF was forced to select its pilots from the common population, instead of their usual preference for upper-class families. Attempts were made to educate the pilots on refined manners and tastes, but these lessons became very unpopular among the pilots, especially the piano lessons which the Royal Air Force believed would increase the pilots' level of culture and improve their dexterity. According to this story, the burning began at RAF Leuchars, where the only piano at the base burned down accidentally and piano lessons were cancelled. Word spread, and soon pilots at more and more Royal Air Force bases began to burn the pianos to avoid lessons. Another legendary version of the tradition's origin holds that RAF piano burning began as a tribute to fallen airmen. According to the New Zealand Herald, a piano-playing pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II played to his fellow airmen each time one of their number had been killed. When he himself was killed in action, his comrades decided that "if he couldn't play the piano any more, nobody would, so they dragged it outside and set it alight."
Piano burning ceremonies based on the RAF tradition are also held by the US Air Force. A piano was ceremonially burnt at Langley Air Force Base in 2011 to celebrate the 94th anniversary of the 94th Fighter Squadron. At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the 4th Fighter Wing burns a piano each year in commemoration of the Battle of Britain, while Vance Air Force Base sometimes celebrates the graduation of trainee pilots with a piano burning.
Although piano burning ceremonies are primarily carried out by the UK and US air forces, the Roxbury Tavern near Sauk City, Wisconsin has held an annual piano burning ceremony since 2004 to mark the Summer Solstice. A eulogy for the piano is delivered prior to it being set alight, and afterwards its remains are placed on display in the tavern's garden along with those of burnt pianos from previous years.
Compositions for burning pianos
Piano burning should really be done with an upright piano; the structure is much more beautiful than that of a grand when you watch it burn. The piano must always be one that’s irretrievable, that nobody could work on, that no tuner or rebuilder could possibly bring back. It’s got to be a truly defunct piano.
She asks the performer to soak paper in lighter fluid, set it alight, and drop it into the piano. She also specifies that balloons may be attached, and the piano may be played for as long as the performer is able. Piano Burning is a part of her Piano Transplants series, which also includes Piano Drowning, Piano Garden, and Southern Exposure.
Yōsuke Yamashita first performed on a burning piano in 1973, when asked by Japanese graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu to be the subject in his short film, burning piano. 35 years later, at the age of 66, Yamashita re-watched the film and was inspired to repeat the performance. Dressed in a protective firefighter's uniform, Yamashita improvised on the burning piano during sunset on a beach in western Japan. He said of the experience,
I did not think I was risking my life but I was almost suffocating from the smoke that was continuously getting into my eyes and nose. I had decided to keep on playing until the piano stopped making sounds, so though I did not mean it but it ended up having a life-or-death battle between the piano and myself."
The pianos used for both of Yamashita's performances were donated, decade-old broken ones.
Diego Stocco composed a piece called The Burning Piano, which is made up entirely of his recordings of a burning piano. Stocco began the burning process by pointing a butane lighter directly towards the strings and played single notes, and after the flame was extinguished he played with what remained. He recorded the entire process and later rearranged samples to create the piece of music. The virtual instrument company Spectrasonics created a sample library called Omnisphere which includes a Burning Piano sample recorded by Stocco.
Michael Hannan's compositions have often involved pieces for pianos which have been altered in some way, including being set on fire. His 2003 Burning Questions, a radiophonic work commissioned by ABC Radio National, explored the "cultural politics of auto-destructive music" and included the sounds of a burning baby grand piano (with a microphone placed inside), the observers' reactions, and Hannan playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the piano immediately prior to setting it alight. According to Hannan:
The act of burning a piano [...] stimulates a strong emotional response from an audience. I became more interested in the crowd's response than in the sounds made from the piano itself.
The piano burning which forms the basis of the work had taken place on 2 October 1999 at Bellingen, New South Wales. The composer Barry Conyngham, one of the observers at the burning, was heard to remark that he found "burning a perfectly good microphone more sacrilegious than burning a piano."
Piano burning as visual art
The destruction of musical instruments, often by fire, was a recurrent theme in Arman's work. Two of his most notable works involving piano burning were his 1965 Piano de Néron (Nero's Piano) and his 1966 Piano Flamboyant (Flaming Piano). The burning for Piano Flamboyant took place on the roof of Arman's atelier in Nice and was filmed for a documentary by Gérard Patris which was later broadcast on French national television. As with his other burnt instrument works, which also included violins, cellos, and guitars, the charred remains were then mounted on panels or enclosed in plexiglas. One of Arman's earliest works of piano destruction was his 1962 Chopin's Waterloo which took at the Galerie Saqqârah in Gstaad. On that occasion rather than burning the piano, the artist hacked it to pieces with an axe.
Several of Chiharu Shiota's installations have featured a piano which she had set alight with the charred remains then displayed in an installation of black thread. As part of the 2011 MONA FOMA arts festival, Shiota set the piano alight on a street in Hobart, Tasmania. According to Shiota, the inspiration came from a childhood experience when she saw a charred piano amidst the ruins of a neighbour's house which had burnt down in the night.
Douglas Gordon's 2012 video installation The End of Civilisation was centred on a burning grand piano placed in the isolated landscape of Cumbria on the border between Scotland and England. According to Gordon:
A piano started to represent for me the ultimate symbol of western civilisation. Not only is it an instrument, it's a beautiful object that works as a sculpture but it has another function entirely.
The work, displayed simultaneously on multiple screens, consists of close-up film of the burning piano from the moment it is set alight until it is reduced to ashes juxtaposed with a second film which is a 360 degree pan of the Scottish Borders landscape surrounding the piano. After its premiere at the Tyne Theatre and Opera House in July 2012, The End of Civilisation was shown at the London 2012 Festival and toured as part of a Douglas Gordon retrospective in Tel Aviv followed by screenings in Venice, New York, and Berlin.
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- Piano Transplants on the official website of Annea Lockwood
- Video of Yōsuke Yamashita playing a burning piano on the beach of Shika-machi, Japan, 8 March 2008
- Omnisphere sample library with multiple pieces by Diego Stocco, including a segment from Burning Piano (official website of Spectrasonics)
- Douglas Gordon: The End of Civilisation with stills and video excerpts from the film on the website of Great North Run Culture who commissioned the work
- Images of Arman's burnt piano works Piano de Néron and Piano Flamboyant on arman-studio.com