Can You Still Smash a Piano and Call it Art in New Oakland?

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Avant-garde composer Moe! Staiano created his piece 'Death of a Piano' in the early 2000s, when Oakland was a wholly different place.  (Carly McLane)

On a late Saturday night in mid-August, the overhead lights of an Oakland warehouse reflected off Moe Staiano’s sweaty brow as he waved his hands wildly, using giant cue cards to conduct his 75-piece orchestra of violinists, guitarists, bassists and percussionists. The cacophonous score slowly built into a rhythmic foreboding that pulsated through the room.

Then, clang! Staiano brought down his sledgehammer. Shards of his piano’s white keys splintered off and flew into the crowd. Bang! He pummeled the side board. It loosened, then split off. Crash! He shoved the piano’s remaining frame forward, slamming it onto the concrete ground. Staiano pounced on his fallen victim, bashing the few strings that stubbornly hung on. The standing room-only crowd watched in bewilderment and awe as they witnessed something between an anatomical dissection and a spiritual transition.

The piece is called Death of a Piano, and it was the first time Staiano had performed it since May 25, 2007.

"You have do a few whacks in the middle, and then hit all the cheap side things so it pushes those parts out," Staiano tells me of his technique. "Go back to the middle, take the keyboard out, and you have the frame pretty much exposed. Then, you break that."


He clarifies that he can only speak to the destruction of spinet and upright pianos. "I’ve never done a grand," he says. "That would be a completely new ballgame."

Death of a Piano, one of Staiano’s best-known works, is the product of another time in Oakland—when cheap rent and abundant warehouse space afforded artists the freedom to create eccentric, experimental work that didn’t make much money but was nonetheless thrilling to watch.

Staiano moved to Oakland from the Central Valley town of Manteca in the mid-2000s, but he had already been involved in the Bay Area’s thriving experimental and improvisational music scene since the late '90s, largely as a drummer and percussionist. He joined a few bands, including Mute Socialite and the influential act Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, before forming his own post-punk “no-wave” outfit Surplus 1980. In the downtime between gigs, he wrote compositions for his avant-garde orchestra, then called Moe!kestra, now dubbed the Moe! Staiano Ensemble.

Time and space to create are at a premium in the Bay Area. Can eccentric art like Moe! Staiano's 'Death of a Piano' survive?
Time and space to create are at a premium in the Bay Area. Can eccentric art like Moe! Staiano's 'Death of a Piano' survive? (Feona Lee Jones )

Things have changed since the first time Staiano smashed a piano in front of a live audience. Those earlier performances were a little more reckless, the composer says. There was a lot of anger he was taking out on objects—pianos, TV sets, fireworks. But that was a different life for him, Staiano says, and a different era for Oakland.

“There was a lot more freedom back then,” he says. “Now, it’s a lot more strained.”

When people talk about the changes Oakland has undergone in recent years, they mention dank dive bars converted to $12 cocktail joints, “dangerous” blocks colonized by rows of boutique shops and low-income families displaced by hipsters. Sky-high rents make it hard for artists to find the space to create, but there are also new bondages placed on time. Often, the choice is to make work that pays the bills, or take on a second or third job.

When there’s hardly any time to explore and improvise without a financial end-goal in mind, a creative scene has no room to incubate. It splinters like one of Staiano’s poor pianos.

Staiano performed Death of a Piano 11 years ago, when he was paying $500 a month for a shared place. Now, his rent is nearly double, and even then, that's only due to a benevolent landlord. He’s performed Death of a Piano seven or eight times, around the Bay Area and once up in Portland, but Staiano’s never really been satisfied with them.

He mentions compromises, subtle to viewers but grating to him, that he’s had to make over the years because he couldn’t find enough musicians. He also changed his priority to safety after an audience member, the author Beth Lisick, was hit in the face with a “pretty big chunk of metal and wood” when she was eight months pregnant. (Lisick even wrote about it for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002. )

“These people crowded around me to see if I was okay, if I wanted ice or a towel, but all I wanted to do was keep watching the show with the blood all over my face,” Lisick tells me. “I don’t think I’d ever felt cooler in my entire life.”

Staiano was fortunate to find a perfect venue for his August performance—the First Church of the Buzzard in Ghost Town—but there weren’t many to choose from. “Obviously, before Ghost Ship, there were a lot of warehouse spaces,” he says. “But finding spaces after 2013 just became harder to come by. It was one of the reasons I kind of stopped.”

Although he doesn’t have any piano-smashing engagements coming up, Staiano’s next performance is on Oct. 23 at The Uptown, where he’ll conduct his nine-piece electric guitar ensemble in a composition titled Away Towards the Light. Influenced by the “no-wave” bands of late-'70s New York, Away Towards the Light uses a minimal, repetitive beat as the backbone for the piece’s three- or four-guitar groupings. "Lots of discordant and tri-tone chords and notes and very intense," Staiano says, "but also very calm and pretty before moving back to epic walls of guitars once more."

And though Staiano is excited to perform once again, he’s still not sure how long he’ll avoid the looming scythe of the housing crisis.

"It is an art I want to keep doing, and it’s the only thing I’m really good at," he says. "Even if I’m not making money, I’m not going to stop."


Moe Staiano performs at The Uptown in Oakland on Oct. 23. Details here