Unearthing the history that's lost in music

Young Jazz Musician of the Year Matthew Bourne has been round Yorkshire finding pianos with a story. Hannah Baker talked to Bourne about Songs from a Lost Piano.

Found in a Methodist chapel in Nidderdale with two motorbikes propped up against it, the once splendid grand piano no longer has any legs, a lid or keys that work.

It's a far cry from the days when the instrument stood in the ballroom of 17th century Cockmill Hall near Whitby.

But the gloomy piano, along with five dilapidated others found across Yorkshire, will be played once again for an innovative music tour, which starts this month at Leeds College of Music.

Songs From a Lost Piano aims to remember and celebrate their pasts by uncovering the stories behind each instrument.

But it also hopes to appreciate how they have changed over the years to become new – and in most cases less tuneful – objects.

The pianos will be played by musician and composer Matthew Bourne, whose avant-garde approach saw him named Perrier Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 2001 and pick up the Innovation Award at the BBC Radio Jazz Awards in 2002.

Bourne, a lecturer at Leeds College of Music, took part in a three-month search for the pianos, which each tell a unique story.

"There is a certain respect that you have for instruments with an established history," he says.

"I wanted old instruments that had started to become new instruments because they had become weathered or abandoned or neglected," Bourne adds.

The collection includes uprights found in an Otley junk shop and a Failsworth mill as well as a white grand unearthed at Besbrode's Pianos in Leeds, which was once used to adorn a cocktail lounge.

Perhaps the most exciting discovery was a piano played by New Orleans-born blues pianist and singer Champion Jack Dupree when he lived in Halifax during the 1960s and '70s.

"To be making music on his old piano is quite humbling," says Bourne, who was an admirer of the musician in his youth.

Another of the pianos belonged to 92-year-old Elsie Smith of Harrogate.

The instrument, which was bought new in the early 1900s, was given to her by her mother on her 21st birthday. Her mother had also received it as a gift on her 21st birthday.

Bourne has recorded an interview with her about the history of the piano which he hopes to use during the concerts.

A photo of Elsie with the instrument is one of several images taken by Yorkshire photographer Ben McMahon of the people and pianos discovered on the search, a display of which will accompany the tour.

The piano spent most of its life in the Leicester village of Sepcote where it was used for many occasions central to village life including weddings, funerals, birthdays and carol services.

Bourne has used a community song book typical of this era to inspire his composition for the Lost Piano tour.

He says: "I opened it up and thought 'wow look at all those songs'. These are all the songs your grandma could sing from memory.

"This is the kind of book most families would have had on their piano and I think this project harks back to that."

But while Bourne is clearly fascinated by the stories behind each piano, he also strives to understand them for what they have become.

"They are different instruments now. You have got to play them for what they are. It is a matter of sitting down and really getting to know them," he says.

The six pianos are out of tune with one another, and most have missing keys or dud notes but this does not deter Bourne, who says he has had the idea for this project for years.

"When the piano is bad it's such hard work for the pianist. But I thought about seeing how I could work with that," he explains.

But he admits working with six instruments loaded with history has taken its toll.

"The nature of these instruments tends to suck the life out of me. There is something quite ghostly and other-worldly about them," he says.

Bourne was encouraged to develop his inventive style of music by Jonty Stockdale, now principal at the Royal Northern College of Music, while he was studying at Leeds College of Music.

"He was able to embrace what I did and also say 'what about this?'," says Bourne.

And he has continued to improvise with different sounds and styles of music for the Lost Piano tour.

"We are discovering the idea of these pianos through trial and error. If you try and pre-contrive stuff too far, you deny yourself the possibility of any other magic.

"Every time I sit down, there's always something new that comes out of it," he explains.

But the Lost Piano tour, which has been commissioned by contemporary music organisation Sound and Music, will also see Bourne play some more familiar tunes.

A rendition of Elton John's Crocodile Rock will be played on the white grand, and Elsie's piano will be used for a touching version of Barry Manilow's Mandy.

Schubert's The Earl King is also likely to feature. Bourne will be accompanied by a trio of singers including London-based vocalist Andrew Plummer.

While for most of the instruments the tour will mark their last gasp of music before they are consigned to the scrap heap, Elsie's piano is to be given to Champion Jack's grandchildren.

"It will continue to go on which is a really nice conclusion," says Bourne.

Songs from a Lost Piano is at Leeds College of Music on Feb 27. Tickets on 0113 222 3434.