Suddenly coming upon this grand tree in the middle of a museum hallway was a stunning experience, in every use of the word. It wasn’t until I walked around it that I saw the even grander piano containing its massive trunk. The wood of the piano and the bark of the tree looked like they had been fused together over time, until the piano seemed to nearly reach its original state, as a tree that once lived too. Almost like the tree was claiming back the brother that we’d stolen away to saw down and polish off.
The piano is actually a working keyboard, and when turned on it plays the song “Strange Fruit,” in a version written by the artist. It was a song made famous by Billie Holiday in the late 1930s, as a protest against lynching and hate crimes. It has a dark, ominous tone and moves slowly along from note to note. Unfortunately the piano wasn’t turned on when I visited so we didn’t get to hear the artist’s interpretation of this severe somber song. The lyrics included on the placard read:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
But when I first saw the tree, my initial reaction took me to a very different tune. I immediately thought of Regina Spektor’s song “Firewood,” from her new album What We Saw from the Cheap Seats. In it she repeats the line “The piano is not firewood yet,” as a way of recognizing the life and potential that still remains within all of us, regardless of our age. It’s such a happy, uplifting song – even though Regina sings it sweet and soberly. Applying that song to this sculptural work seems to only make the message even more uplifting. As if the wood of the piano was destined for beautiful musical means, and now that it has become the piano it was always meant to be, it’s come to share this newfound music with the rest of the trees. Her song goes:
The piano is not firewood yet,
They try to remember but still they forget
That the heart beats in threes, just like a waltz
And nothing can stop you from dancing
Pick one of the two songs I talked about and scroll through the pictures below while you listen.
Try out the other song too if you like, just to see how different two interpretations can make things.