Next performance

The next performance will happen this Sunday (4th August 2013) at about 1.00pm. This will be a special performance because it will be given by children. Several families have been invited to a picnic and performance in the woods

As usual e-mail me if you’d like to attend (

Performance 3: with Tom Jackson (Tuesday 2nd July 2013)

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Date/time: Tuesday 2nd July at 19.20

Weather/light: light rain, 18 degrees, overcast

Photographers/artists: Neil Sloman (photos), Tom Jackson (bass clarinet), Ben Horner (podcast/sound art)

Vegetation/wildlife: the rosebay willowherb had grown almost 2m high. It was considerably higher than the piano. The audience could not see the instrument from the clearing where they sat. The clarinet player sheltered from the rain in a hollow at the base of a yew (?) tree. The birds answered the clarinet.

State of piano: more keys worked this month. This was probably because the weather had been warmer and drier in the previous weeks (although it was raining during this performance).

Unusual happenings/circumstances: the bass clarinetist Tom Jackson had travelled from London to perform this month. A group of poets came to listen.

The walk from the entrance to Littlehall Woods to the piano takes about 5 minutes. It is just long enough to feel like you’re entering another world. In the late nineteenth century these woods belonged to the artist Sidney Cooper who cultivated a collection of rare trees and plants. Bamboo groves and young Redwood trees give the forest a beautiful yet disorientating feel, like an eerie paradise.

As well playing the keys of the piano I used fishing wire coated in rosin to bow the piano strings. I felt that my playing was not as successful as last month. I did not exercise the same restraint or listen as closely and I could not see or hear Tom during our duet together. He was about 10m away sheltering under a tree. Despite this there are some compelling moments of synchronicity near the end of the recording.

Sound artist Ben Horner came at very short notice (I phoned him earlier that afternoon) with a voice recorder and interviewed me and Tom with a view to making a podcast about the project.

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Neil Sloman 2nd July 2013, a set on Flickr.


There have been lots of happy accidents around this project. A few days before the last performance I bumped into the brilliant dancer/double bassist David Leahy. We got talking about this project and he mentioned that Ross Bolleter had been making music with old pianos in Australia. This led me to discover the site for the World Association for Ruined Piano Studies:

And a week or so later I was talking to David’s partner, the dancer Tina Krasevec, and they both expressed an interest in coming to the woods and doing a music/dance performance with the piano. This is planned for Sunday 1st September.

Matthew Watkins, who was really the brainchild of this whole project, included a link to the recording of the first performance on his lovely blog:

In response he received an e-mail from James Bailey in Canada:

Amused by the last track. I don’t know if it has something to do with the surname, but I have had a piano in my back garden for the last two and a half years which is now in a state of considerable disrepair – though some of the keys still work and the sustain pedal gives a wonderful crashing sound. Here is a recent recording and picture though it’s rather minimal:

Another surprise was an lovely ruined-piano anecdote from a singer-songwriter from Scotland called Tom Houston who somehow stumbled upon this site:

well just to add a couple of memories of my own to the project… november 1975 in a school in Glasgow a rather destructive ‘game’ got out of hand and a piano in the 6th year common room was destroyed…I then drove my father’s old Hillman Minx Estate to the school and we tied the bits too the car roof and drove it out to the countryside where with no real respect for the environment we dumped it…however we did have a sense of occasion and ceremony and played a concert on it (harplike) out in the frosty evening…lovely still evening it was from the raw destructive ravages of teenage boyishness we moved to abstract innovative outdoor art…we also dumped some of the bits in raw hessian sacks, that just happened to have the school name on it…so although never ‘caught’ it did make the local papers of suburbia…sadly their are no pictures of videos, although I did two years later buy a Quartz 8mm camera (clockwork) which I stll have…how much is it to buy and process standard 8mm film these days?……oh I feel for that piano in the damp!

Lastly I have been asked if I might do a similar project elsewhere. I am not sure how I feel about this. Would another piano in the woods compromise the uniqueness of this particular instrument and these particular gatherings of people?

Performance 2: solo (Sunday 9th June 2013)

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Date/time: Sunday 9th June 2013 at 17.20

Weather/light: cloudy, bright, 11-12 degrees

Photographers/artists: Neil Sloman & Hazel Stone

Vegetation/wildlife: the surrounding rosebay willowherb had grown to almost the height of the piano (about 1.5m). There were no ants. A small spider ran down one of the bass strings as I played. As usual the birds sang loudly.

State of piano: Most of the keys did not produce a sound when pressed. Many of the notes that did sound stayed down when pressed and were then unusable. There were about ten or eleven keys that reliably and repeatedly sounded. The timbre, tuning and attack of these varied greatly. The dampers had expanded and stopped many of the strings vibrating even when the damper pedal was down.

Unusual happenings/circumstances: my wife was due to give birth by Cesarean section the next morning, a plane flew overhead and produced a similar sound to the music being played at that point (this can be heard at 1:00 on Piano in the Woods 2: ebows and hand fan)

Once I started playing I realised several things. Firstly, I didn’t know which keys worked or what they were going to sound like. Secondly there was an audience of about ten people. It suddenly occurred to me that I had to make music out of the process of discovering what state the piano was in. I had understood this in theory beforehand but it was only when I started playing that I realised how unlike a normal piano this instrument had become. This improvising really was the sound of discovery.

For the audience the performance probably walked a tightrope between being boring and sharing in the process of discovery. A particularly boring few minutes happened when I tried to tape the ebows onto the strings. A beautiful sine-tone-like sound emerged and then faded, scraping, nothing, another tone, scraping, fade. The tape didn’t hold. In the end I had to make do with one ebow in each hand (I tried holding two ebows in each hand but this produced some boring moments too). Once the hand fan was involved the sound took off. To my surprise it created a lovely tampura-like drone (you can hear this on Piano in the Woods 2: milk frothing whisk at 3:10).

I found the experience moving and almost overwhelming. This was due in part to the fact that my wife was having our second child the next morning. There was also a peculiar energy around the event. After the performance I started writing some notes on the weather/temperature etc. and I found that I could barely hold the pen. This was partly due to sitting cross-legged under the piano for twenty minutes and partly to this overwhelming feeling.

Neil Sloman has agreed to take a photograph of the piano from the same spot with the same camera at each performance. This bright idea came from Elise from Sondryfolk. The plan is to finish the project with twelve photographs documenting the changing conditions of the piano and surrounding vegetation.

When Neil had chosen the spot from which these photos would be taken he looked down and saw, amongst the undergrowth, a plaque that read:


No one knew who this is or who planted the tree. The tree is not spectacular. It is about 2m tall with a few reddish leaves. There is a bench to the far side of the tree that is similar to the bench that we found on the spot where we put the piano. It is interesting that out of the whole woodland Mr Dale chose the same spot to be buried that we chose for the piano.

Neil has made a large print of the piano that he has left beside the instrument in the forest. I look forward to seeing how this image decays alongside the piano.


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Neil Sloman, a set on Flickr.

Next performance

The next performance will be on Sunday 9th June 2013 (currently performances are through invitation only). The original plan was for myself, James Widden (violin), Alison Holford (cello) and Alex Golovin (clarinet) to play movements from The Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen. However, this would require the piano functioning conventionally so on a rainy Tuesday morning me and my 4 year old daughter Eva went to the woods to try the piano. The heavy rainfall in late May had made the keys jam. The octave at the top and bottom of the piano was fine but everything else was stuck so it was not possible to play the Messiaen this time.

That was over two weeks ago and since then the weather has been warm and sunny. The wood may have dried out and contracted but it is too late to try the piano again and organise musicians. I am looking forward to discovering the condition of the piano in the course of the next performance. I will bring e-bows, dental floss and hand fans in case the keys are still jammed. The Whiststable-based photographer Neil Sloman has kindly agreed to come and take some pictures.

Photo by Neil Sloman


I want to thank the people who have made this project possible so far: Matthew Watkins, Libby Peatman, Elizabeth Mansfield, Piers, Dave, and particularly the artists whose fantastic work you can see below: Ben Rowley, Aurelija Pakeltyte and Nathan Thomas.