BEHIND THE SCENES with Brenda Hutchinson

How did you decide where and when to stop? How did you attract participants to the U-Haul

U-Haul gave me a 10-foot truck which I parked wherever I could manage it. I wanted to make sure I stopped in all kinds of places -- urban and rural, commercial and residential, parks and stores and rest stops -– places that were visible to people walking by. I was always looking for a good spot. After parking, I attached a bright yellow banner reading "How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?" on the side of the truck. Then I blew up balloons and hung them on the truck and finally opened up the back so people could see the piano. Then I just started talking to people who came by and asked them to play my piano and to tell me piano stories

How many hours of tape did you collect, total, on your 6,300 mile journey

I recorded everything on DAT, and ended up with almost 19 hours of tape. I also invited people to send tapes to me, which they did

Were there certain selections that were popular choices for people to play? What was the most surprising song you heard

The runaway favorite, most played and requested song was "Heart and Soul." I don't know how many times I sat down and played "the other part" with people. It was very fun. "Heart and Soul" was followed by (many versions of) "Fur Elise." "The Entertainer" and "Chopsticks" were also very popular. The surprising piece was one called "Swans on a Lake." I had completely forgotten that piece. It's a very early song that beginners learn, and a lot of people played that or tried to remember it. I also had sheet music in the truck for people to read if they wanted to, and people would ask for "Swans on a Lake." My version of the music had a little gold star on it from when I was a little kid

You mention that you were somewhat surprised by people's unwillingness to participate in the project. Did you receive any outright negative responses? Did the police ever show suspicion about what you were doing

When I first started to ask people to play the piano, I invited them. I'd ask, "Would you like to play my piano?" Most people said, "No," and just kept on walking. So I thought that maybe that not a good question, so I changed it to "Would you play my piano?" More people were willing to come into the truck and play. I thought that was very interesting -- that people were less likely to respond to an invitation or to take advantage of an opportunity than they were willing to sort of help me out. Even at that point, most people were passing by. They were curious, and if they stopped to ask about what was going on, they would usually come on in and play. Finally I found a version of the question that worked pretty well. I asked people, "Have you ever played the piano?" It didn't matter whether they said yes or no because once they stopped I showed them the piano and then asked them to play. By that time, people were more interested than suspicious, and would participate. Overall I'd say one out of every ten people I asked actually agreed to play

I really can't think of a single negative response other than people just saying no. Some people were annoyed or in a hurry, but it was a similar reaction that people who hand out leaflets on the street must get. It was hard to get used to all that rejection. It wasn't like I was asking for money, but people aren't used to being offered something that could be fun to do. I wondered how many people said "no" before they even knew what they were saying "no" to

The only encounter with the authorities was one meter maid in the Quincy Market area of Boston. I had parked the truck in a one-hour zone, and the woman kept circling around looking at us, but she never stopped. That was the first really major public stop and I was very relieved and encouraged with the general level of tolerance

*Can you talk about the choices you made in producing the piece? It almost sounds composed, like a piano piece, in itself, with a very careful balance between straight narrative, excerpts, and actual piano-playing, counterpoint, pacing, etc.

*Both my training and inclination is to listen to sounds and express their relationships in terms of music. You can think of the narrative as the melodic line. It's the main focal point, and it carries the listener through the piece. The emotional quality of the voice translates as musical timbre. So does an unusual accent or physical quality such as a sore throat. Is the person whispering or yelling? Are they hoarse or is there some other unusual feature in their voice. Is the voice excited or calm? Enthusiastic or mournful? These are the qualities that a listener will often identify with or be interested in listening to when they may not relate to the content of a particular story.

*I think of the ambience, voices, and other sounds in the background as harmony. There are times in the piece when you hear a lot of traffic and other voices in the background. Other times it is very still. There are solos and duets and choruses. The opening of the piece has overlapping and woven voices and is very contrapuntal. Dynamics and rhythm more obviously related to how soft or loud one speaks and how fast or slow. All of these qualities can be used to enhance or blur intelligibility.

*I am very conscious of these musical relationships and enjoy working with the sounds in this way. This said, I also feel a great responsibility to maintain the sense of a person's story as well as his or her intentions. When working with an abstract sound like a violin (or a piano), I feel free to combine or transform the sounds based on what I like to hear or think about the quality of the sound. However, when working with someone's narrative, my first concern is intelligibility. After that, I listen for all of those musical properties in the voices. I am constantly trying to maintain a balance between these considerations.

**Some of the participants in the piece share personal memories from their piano-related pasts. were you surprised by the amount of emotion expressed by these people who were absolute strangers?***

**I was most impressed by how brave people were. Once they decided to come into the truck and play, people were really committed. Some people were so nervous their hands would tremble. It was amazing how old and deep many of the memories (and wounds) ran. Others were just delighted to have an opportunity to play. I was surprised at the number of people who had never touched a piano before. I thought that somehow most people would have had the opportunity at some point in their lives. Then there was the rarer bunch of people who were really accomplished musicians -- jazz performers, improvisers, ragtime, boogie and blues players as well as some classically-trained musicians.***

**Everyone who played had some relation to the instrument. Some wished they could play, others resented having to play as children. Some were grateful. Most people loved music. People talked about their siblings and parents, their financial circumstances, states of mind, etc. Talking about the piano became a focal point for a particular kind of memory. Many people were children when they first encountered the piano and / or piano lessons. Children are vulnerable. So much of the quality of their experience depended on how they were treated as children in general. Coercion, bribery, judgment, and power struggles were balanced with self-discipline, love of the instrument, sacrifice, etc. All of this had been remembered in a child's brain and was recalled as an adult. A lot of people were momentarily transported back to their childhood and I think that's where the emotion came from. It was remarkable to witness and to share and I am really grateful. In those moments we forgot that we were strangers.***

**What are you working on now? Do you have any plans for making a similar type of radio/audio piece?***

**Right now, I am practicing and performing with my Long Tube instrument. I sing into a nine-and-a-half-foot tube. It's my instrument these days, and I play in an improvising ensemble called "Vorticella." I also perform as a soloist and am going to Russia in a few months.***

*As far as the radio goes, I just revised a piece I did with my sister and the Church Universal and Triumphant in Montana. I spent a winter there and recorded my sister and nephews, their neighbors and other members, including the spiritual leader of the Church, Elizabeth Clare Prophet. The piece is called "Violet Flame" and can be heard on the Soundprint* website.***

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? was a fun project, especially in retrospect. However, I don't have any immediate plans to do another traveling piece like that. One thing that I really liked about doing that piece was the level of intimacy it generated, both during the performances and story telling as well as in the listening afterwards. I enjoy exploring difficult or personal topics because it's possible to travel to those quiet, vulnerable interior places and to connect with people by sharing stories.