Arts & CultureMusic

Pianodrome at SHOUT! Will Be First US Amphitheater Made of Pianos

Installation will host concerts during Uptown arts & music festival

A man sits in an amphitheater made out of old pianos
Matthew Wright sits in Pianodrome Charlotte, the nation’s first amphitheater made out of pianos. (Photo by Hailey Knutsen)

Matthew Wright shuffles through a box of lost things — baseball cards, hair pins and coins — that had fallen victim to the untouchable catacombs of a piano. 

“Is that a dime?” he asked. “Yes, and that’s a quarter,” I responded.

“Quarter,” he repeated in an American accent that mocked my own.

Wright is visiting from Edinburgh, Scotland for Charlotte SHOUT!, the city’s arts and music festival that returns to Uptown March 31 to April 16. The festival will debut the nation’s first pianodrome — a playable amphitheater made completely out of recycled pianos — based on Wright and Tim Vincent-Smith’s 2017 installation in the UK.

It is being commissioned by Charlotte Center City Partners after chief creative officer Robert Krumbine saw the 100-seater pianodrome in action at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019. Wright and Vincent-Smith performed with their band Sync every night of the festival — 20 shows in a row.

Krumbine, who also serves as executive producer of SHOUT!, approached the band with an offer to build a pianodrome for the Charlotte showcase. The project has now been in the works for three years, and with the pandemic getting in the way, Pianodrome Charlotte is now five weeks away from its U.S. debut. It is expected to appear at Charlotte SHOUT! for at least the next three years.

The Pianodrome team in Edinburgh created a series of videos to train the local team tasked with building the amphitheater at a Fort Mill warehouse, but they ran into one issue: American pianos are different shapes and sizes than UK pianos.

Some of the pianos the U.S. team initially found were unable to be used, and Vincent-Smith had to make some design tweaks to work with the space and the varying sizes of American pianos.

Now that all of the pianos have been sourced with some help from Minneapolis nonprofit Keys 4/4 Kids, the team has begun to strip down the pianos to build the amphitheater which consists of multi-level seating and three playable pianos.

“Our key guiding principle is that nobody is unmusical, no piano is waste. We want to make sure that people feel welcome in our space and that they feel inspired to interact with the pianos,” Wright said. “It’s really important for us to turn things upside down and inside out and to hopefully be an opportunity for people to think differently.”

The makings of an amphitheater built using wood from old pianos
Pianodrome Charlotte is being built in a Fort Mill warehouse using 40 upcycled pianos. (Photo by Hailey Knutsen)

Every single piece down to the screws is sourced from a used piano. The structure is held together by frame harps, which traditionally hold the tension of the strings inside of the piano. Each frame harp has a different color and design. Each piece of wood is stained a different shade of brown.

The amphitheater will be moved from the Fort Mill warehouse to The Brooklyn Collective’s Grace AME Zion Church for the Charlotte SHOUT! festival. 

The Brooklyn Collective is the remains of what was considered “the Black Wall Street” in the Charlotte neighborhood previously known as Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Its three buildings are the survivors of urban renewal and now stand as a homage to Black history and culture.

“It resonates with what we’re doing in so many ways. It’s an old church being brought back to life. It’s not got a congregation, but finding a new use for it,” Wright said. “It’s run by The Brooklyn Collective who are a brilliant arts and activist organization. We’re aligned in a lot of ways.”

Local piano teachers have been invited to use Pianodrome Charlotte during the day for recitals, classes and field trips throughout Charlotte SHOUT! In the evening, the pianodrome will host intimate concerts from piano to other small ensemble performances and solo musicians. 

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