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Lost, deep in Ocean Terminal


The power was off and nothing stirred; disconcerting noises emanated from the gloomy fringes. A sharp chord was played in a distant corner, resonating around the gaping darkness. The last vestiges of a winter’s afternoon illuminated the centre. As I stepped lightly towards the light, an escalator appeared from the luminescence, stuck and going nowhere. I had arrived, seemingly, in a dress-rehearsal for the apocalypse. Or, reality was on the blink again.

Post-apocalyptic spectres were all around. Was it 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, or The Road? Take your pick. A fevered vision of the Boston Globe HQ in The Handmaid’s Tale came strongest to my mind. ‘Offred’ sheltered in their abandoned offices for several weeks, away from the eyes of the Eyes (and Guardians).

As in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale, the whole feel of the place suggested a rapid ending; things left in stasis, with entropy gradually taking effect.

Truth be told, I was in the old Debenhams store in Ocean Terminal which had, after closing, become the home of community projects such as the Museum of Memories. The abandoned emporium is now in its final months, with demolition due early in 2024.

It had also housed one of the three existent Pianodromes.

The Pianodrome has become renowned as one of the most interesting cultural projects in the city. It represents the desire to reuse rather than discard and look for creative ways to do so. In their case, making use of pianos ‘intercepted on the way to landfill’.

There is a profound harmony between the cultural and the environmental aspects of the project. The most obvious manifestation of the project has been the creation of ‘unique playable, community-centred sculptures made entirely from otherwise disused pianos’.

The potential these have as performance spaces was evident at the Pianodrome Resonancy events at the Old Royal High School in the summer of 2022. These featured a variety of artists, representing a range of musical genres. All appreciated the novel acoustics of the Pianodrome. The wood absorbs the sound and allows it to pass around the little timber amphitheatre,

Prior to venturing into the forsaken parts of Ocean Terminal, I had been at the Pianodrome HQ; the Warehouse on West Harbour Road, Granton.

There, pianos are dismantled to be repurposed; others are restored to be played again as musical instruments. Those slivers of wood that can’t be reused or readapted make their way into the stove; a repurposed gas container with a wonky looking ‘chimney’ striking out of it.

On my last visit there was snow on the ground. Those who had turned up huddled round the stove, contentedly sipping hot drinks and tucking into ladles of hot pea soup. The event had the feel of a cultural picket.

Some had turned up as part of the Pianodrome’s scheme (‘the best thing for an old piano is to find a new home’), while others were there for a Piano Share session, hosted by two young piano teachers - Sasha and Shona. Everyone (who wished) took their turn at the piano, playing a short piece.

It was delightful to see some of the youngsters perform as they made their very first, tentative steps with the instrument. The Piano Share sessions provide a great opportunity to play in a friendly, non-judgmental atmosphere. Some of the efforts were adventurous and dynamic, several participants performed impressive self-composed pieces.

The engaging character of the performances and the interactions with the two hosts helped keep everyone going. These were not polished and final performances but works in progress with ‘bum notes’, false starts etc. But that’s how you improve in any sphere; constantly pushing yourself beyond what you’ve mastered before.

In the unheated space, each performer had to vigorously warm their hands before striking the first key. Not only does such cold weather make playing the piano difficult, it also makes the instrument itself a little harder to play.

Changing temperatures can cause issues: wood expands and contracts causing loose parts and the odd wobbly key. Pianos are in some sense living instruments, affected by their surroundings and the way they are cared for.

The Pianodrome Warehouse is a captivating, cavernous place. In every corner, nook and cranny there is stuff going on, involving various implements and different parts of pianos.

You need to stay alert with sharp cutting blades located everywhere. As well as repairing and disassembling the instruments those working at the Warehouse have, ingeniously, used parts of pianos to strengthen the building.

In addition, a group of students recently used piano parts to form a sculpture; reincarnating the instruments as art, rather than seeing them go to waste. As with many such projects, a sense of precariousness permeates it - alongside that, comes the promise of possibility.

The Pianodrome has now made it’s way across ‘the pond’, earlier this year the organisation oversaw the installation of a Pianodrome in a ‘a beautiful octagonal brick-work church’ in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Where next for this singular project? ■

Charlie Ellis writes on culture, education, politics and sport. He thanks Eva Vaporidi and the SICK Writing Group for their comments on this piece.

Pianodrome on a visit to Leith Theatre

Pianos are in some sense living instruments, affected by their surroundings



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