Come Play a Piano in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens

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One of the pianos in "Flower Piano," an installation at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens  (Cy Musiker)

The tinkling of a piano  floats through the trees in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens mixed with bird song and the sound of the wind.

The music appears courtesy of Flower Piano, a project created by artists Dean Mermell and Mauro ffortissimo.

Mauro ffortissimo at the keyboards and Dean Mermell at "Flower Piano" in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens
Mauro ffortissimo at the keyboards and Dean Mermell at "Flower Piano" in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens (Cy Musiker/KQED)

The artists recently installed 12 pianos around the Botanical Gardens. There's one nestled in a redwood grove, another one by the waterfowl garden, and a Vose and Sons grand piano on a terrace overlooking the Great Meadow.

“We were just talking about how great it is to look over the piano and see this great undulating landscape,” Mermell said. “It’s all manicured and beautiful, and the fog and the mist. It’s just an amazing place to play music.”


The pianos generally still play fine even in damp conditions.

“They’re not concert-level Steinways, but for being out in this beautiful setting, they’re great," ffortisimo said. “The pianos never die with us.”

Sometimes the instruments do become unplayable after exposure to the outdoors. But ffortissimo and Mermell aim to make the pianos' last days beautiful.

Over the past two years, the two guerilla piano installers have been conducting a performance art experiment. Under the name Sunset Piano, they've been placing instruments on the streets of San Francisco as well as on bluffs along the San Mateo Coast. Mermell is making a documentary film about the project.

The two adopt pianos the way some people take in homeless pets. And in the age of streaming music and earbuds, there are plenty of people willing to part with a piano that no one in the house plays anymore.

ffortisimo says installing pianos in public spaces is an experiment in community building. According to the artist, different settings change the listening experience.

“I was playing on the San Mateo coast one day, close to the sun setting, ” ffortissimo said. “A guy goes by on a bicycle and he said, 'who are you playing for?' I said 'I’m playing for whales.'"

Flower Piano is part of the Botanical Gardens’ 75th anniversary celebration, and there are concerts scheduled this weekend by pros like Lara Downes, Rupa and Freddi Price.

But the keyboards are also a magnet for passersby, like five-year-old San Franciscan Kirill Reifstock, who improvised on the theme of “Twinkle Twinkle.”

“It was my first time playing it,” Kirill said.

Kirill Reifstock playing "Twinkle Twinkle," at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens
Kirill Reifstock playing "Twinkle Twinkle" at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens (Cy Musiker)

Botanical Gardens visitor Marge Paradis said finding the pianos in this unlikely place was like falling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.

“It’s like wow!" Paradis said. "It’s weird and strange and wonderful.”

The pianos will be at the Botanical Gardens for anyone to play through July 20th.