The Sound of One Piano Burning
A couple of weeks ago, combustion returned to the U.S. Pipe site for a few hours. It’s been years since the former iron foundry off South Broad stopped converting liquid metal into pipes and valves for controlling the passage of water. But in one of the remaining foundry buildings, stripped of equipment and awaiting redevelopment, video artist Kevin McCarthy of Vermont transformed an old piano into ashes and art, videotaping it as it burned musically in the night against a backdrop of traffic on I-24.
And a burning piano turns out to be surprisingly beautiful. I was one of a handful of spectators allowed by the fire marshal standing 20 or 30 feet away in the cavernous building missing some of its walls. We were too far away to hear the piano strings popping, which pianist Tim Hinck said sounded like a delicate chord. But I was mesmerized watching the baby grand’s inner parts slowly fall to the ground bit by bit to make a pile of glowing coals, gazing through the burned-away sides into a furnace-like bed of embers, seeing flames licking up through and around the keyboard.
McCarthy’s road to filmmaking began with directing avant-garde theater—sometimes including video—in Strasbourg, France. He later shifted to the film industry in Los Angeles, where he worked in development and production for both major studios and independent production companies on feature films that included What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Leaving Las Vegas, and October Sky. He has written a number of screenplays and teaches film-based creative writing at Dartmouth College.
This burn was born during the 2011 Conference on Southern Literature when McCarthy was here presenting the documentary film he made about southern writer Elizabeth Spencer. He talked about the idea with Angela Usrey, owner of Tanner-Hill Gallery, who volunteered an old and untunable piano for burning.
“I was really interested in this idea of creating something that was both visual and sonic,” McCarthy says. “From a sonic point of view, the actual sound of the fire and the piano burning are a type of music. It is primarily on a sonic level a musical composition, even without a pianist.”
The shoot began with experimental composer Tim Hinck playing the piano with the usual fingers-on-keys approach, as well as reaching in to pluck the piano strings. Once the combustion began, directed by local pyrotechnic artist Andrew Nigh, Hinck kept hands on keys as long as he could, then switched to keyboarding with five-foot long lath strips when the flames got too hot, and then finally had to retreat altogether.
McCarthy sees this work having three parts, the first two being sound and video. “The other one is really thought, a background aesthetic thought,” he says. “And I don’t think to control any of the aspects of that process, but especially the third one. I think that good art allows the audience to have a very personal experience which is outside of the creator’s intent.”
Another important aspect of the work for him is the danger inherent in using fire. His interest in fire goes back many years and includes using Molotov cocktails to create site-specific art in Europe. “Aim is very important, I found that out the hard way,” he deadpans.
“You have to respect fire as a sentient force. It has a will,” he continues. “Once a fire gets going it’s very hard to dictate what happens. One can try and create a certain pyrotechnical look, but to me it seems more interesting to sort of just open the door and allow fire to do what it wants to do.”
This piano burn is part of a series. McCarthy shot the first on his farm in Vermont, outside during a snowstorm. Next come burning three pianos in Dallas this summer — again working with Hinck and Nigh — then an unknown number in Atlanta, probably this fall. Ultimately he wants to create discrete video art pieces documenting piano burns in at least two dozen major cities, culminating in a 2015 conflagration of 100 pianos in New York City.
Nothing is final, but he hopes to premiere the Chattanooga burn video locally this summer before taking it on the road to other cities.
McCarthy sees himself as both artist and facilitator for the art itself. “Once the piano starts to burn, you don’t really have any real control of how the image looks,” he says. “And that to me is very interesting because I’m more interested in watching art act independently of the artist.”
Ultimately, McCarthy likes to give up control so he can learn more. While commercial entertainment wants to deliver a reliably pleasing experience, he doesn’t see the point of that.
“I’m not looking to please, to create a satisfactory experience,” he says. “I’m looking to create a beautiful experience for sure, one that has meaning for people. Does it have to be satisfactory? No. I’d rather it be unsatisfactory, because then the questions begin. If you’re satisfied, you don’t ask questions. If you’re unsatisfied, you do.”