January 2012

The Piano Project

Littleton, New Hampshire

Central Question: What is a public good?
Population of Littleton, N.H.: 4,412 (as of the 2010 census); Most famous resident: Eleanor Porter, author of Pollyanna; Most infamous resident: G. G. Allin, scum-rocker who wrote “Expose Yourself to Kids”; Abraham Lincoln’s answer to central question: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities”; Distance from Littleton, N.H., to Lincoln, N.H.: twenty-four miles down I-93, through the state park; Nearby landmark (defunct): the Old Man of the Mountain, New England’s most famous rock formation, whose chin fell down in 2003

During the summer of 2011, the town of Littleton, New Hampshire, kept at least five pianos in the open air, on Main Street or close to it, decently tuned and ready for pedestrians to play. We saw them twice. The first day, when we came for the farmers’ market, we found a glossy white upright with at least one B-flat broken, next to a mansion-like old-age home with the hard-to-spell Ammonoosuc River chirping nearby.

Main Street, by contrast, was less quaint than quirky: that’s where we spent an hour on Monday, and that’s where we found two other pianos, the first an upright painted a fiery, spangled red-orange, the second a spinet in aquamarine, with the swirly black legendbe glad—make musicon top. Our five-and-a-half-year-old son sat down to improvise; when he stood up, a gregarious teen in a plain white T-shirt sat down and performed a fortissimo instrumental version of the theme from Donnie Darko. The spinet abutted a music store; we bought kazoos.

Why the pianos? Who put them there, who paid for them, and who covers them (or pays somebody to cover them) when it rains?

Stephen Burt

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