Player piano

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Isn’t it interesting how important a back story has become? The term was only coined in 1984 and is one of those great portmanteau words which perfectly describe what they do, create a background to the story. Of course as a literary device it is far older, going all the way back to that great Greek storyteller Aristotle.

But are back stories a genuine attempt to make us engage more deeply with a character or narrative, or are they, as in the case of Hollywood films, just a way to shamelessly milk the market? A Star Wars’ prequel became prequels and eventually ran to a trilogy – enough already!

Sometimes back stories are selectively revealed which makes them all the more tantalising, only being given a back story snippet forces us to flesh out the remaining story imaginatively and that is so much more satisfying. I had such a moment this week and the memory of it has stayed with me for days.

Late on Saturday afternoon I was in the West End making one of my now regular visits to the public pianos which have been installed throughout the city as part of the melodic community placemaking project called Keys to the City. They have quickly become a firm favourite of mine, despite the fact that I can only thump out a very poor version of chopsticks.

Keys to the City is a Newcastle Now project created by Dean and Sebastian Winter. Launched in mid-November it has seen seven pianos placed around the city for anyone to use at any time. All the pianos were generously donated by Hunter locals and they arrived in various state of disrepair with some even derelict. Each has been lovingly restored, expertly tuned and then named for its donor giving each of the pianos a unique and colourful back story.

Of the seven pianos the West End has two called ‘James’ and ‘Sam’ and they have suitably wild stories, making them perfectly at home in Newcastle West. ‘James’ is located outside the TAFE building in Hunter Street and almost didn’t make it, he survived a house fire but despite this is now ready to be played again. ‘Sam’ came to the Winters directly from one of the oldest pubs in Carrington, arriving in style on the back tray of a utility. He was manufactured way back in the 1890s making him the oldest piano in the project. I’m so proud we scored him – go the West End!

‘Sam’ can be found in the Anaconda alcove, fittingly opposite Muso’s Corner and it was here that I came upon a scruffy young girl tinkling his keys and playing beautifully. She executed a jaunty tune very well and was obviously enjoying herself, her wide smile testament to the joy of the moment. It was a mutual musical exchange; I loved her playing and she loved to play. When she’d finished I applauded and then tried unsuccessfully to involve her in some chit-chat, but she wasn’t interested. Off she went without a word, padding decisively in her bare feet and heading west toward Stewart Avenue.

She was too young to be wandering around alone and looked fairly unkempt, yet she had her piano deportment down pat, all controlled hands and lovely arm movements and her playing itself was right on the money. It spoke of private piano tuition. She left me in her wake with a myriad of back story questions: where did she come from and where was she going? And how did this little unaccompanied urchin learn to play so well?

The seven pianos can be found: the Anaconda alcove and in front of the TAFE building in Hunter Street (both in the West End), Wheeler Place, Hamburger Haven, Nobbys Lighthouse (Sunday access only), the Hunter Street Mall and Market Square which is just off the Hunter Street Mall. For any changes or updates to this project check:

Another public piano installation is ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ created by British artist Luke Jerram and described as an ‘artwork’. It has been touring internationally since 2008. More than 1,300 pianos have already been installed in 45 cities across the world, including in Australia (but not in Newcastle). Each piano bears the simple instruction ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’. Their website:

Kimberly O’Sullivan

Have you chosen the West End as your home or as the perfect place to run your business? Do you have a West End tale which deserves a wider audience? What inspires and infuriates you about the West End? If you have a story to tell I would love to talk to you! Here’s how to find me:; 0413 250 155.


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