The 442s Get Back To Nature + Debut Special Composition At Forest Park
If you wandered through Forest Park on a hot day this past June, you may have seen something that seemed like a heat-induced fever dream: an upright piano painted several shades of green with a musician and a video crew nearby and a sign that read “Come play with me.”
But if you did happen to witness that scene, don’t worry: you weren’t hallucinating from the heat. The four members of St. Louis musical group the 442s — along with guest percussionist Montez Coleman — did indeed spend 10 sessions in Forest Park June 10-25, inviting passersby to sit down at the piano and play music with them.
Multi-instrumentalist Adam Maness set up at the Grand Basin, while bassist Syd Rodway stationed himself near the Boathouse. Meanwhile, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra cellist Bjorn Ranheim was at the World’s Fair Pavilion, and SLSO violinist Shawn Weil played in a grove of trees near the Visitor and Education Center. Coleman set up at Jefferson Lake.
It was all part of an Artist-in-Residence program that Forest Park Forever, the non-profit conservancy dedicated to working with the City of St. Louis to restore and enhance Forest Park, put together to celebrate its 30th anniversary. In addition to the 442s, Danielle and Kevin McCoy of WORK/PLAY and metal designer Madeline Marak also were selected for the inaugural program.
Maness’ concept involved creating a multimedia composition that included video elements and centered upon musical contributions by the public, who would play that green piano with members of the group. The 442s then would edit the taped performances together with nature footage and sounds to create a work that the band would later play along with during a live performance.
“The idea came to me pretty much straight away,” Maness explains. “I wrote the proposal, and a few weeks later we got the exciting news it was going to happen.”
Maness lined up the piano through Jackson Pianos and the company’s philanthropic arm, Pianos For People. With funding for the residency, the 442s booked Five Owls to videotape the musical interactions and nature scenes.
But once the musicians set up in the park for the recording sessions, they didn’t know what to expect from onlookers.
“You’re leaving so much to chance,” Ranheim says. “But we were all pleasantly surprised about how well it was received by people and how energetic and enthusiastic they were in engaging with us.”
Over 10 sessions, more than 125 people actually sat down to play with the musicians. As one might expect, the participants showcased a wide range of ability at the keyboard.
“Some people obviously had training, including a few friends who came by who were musicians,” adds Ranheim. “Others had no idea how to play piano. But some of the most meaningful interactions were with people who had no formal training and just let go. People bared their personalities when they sat down to play. It’s a testament to the entire process; and the energy and vitality of the park.”
When the sessions were over, Maness sat down to listen to the recordings.
“I took the first two weeks to categorize it all,” he says, “and I listened to everything at least three times. I had notes from the sessions about who was playing and what they did musically, as well. For example, played only black keys, did a lot of swipes or played in the key of F.
“At first, I thought I was just going to use the best parts, but when you see how excited people were to be part of the project, watching them create, well, I wanted to make sure I did include everyone. So I found ways to get them in there.”
Maness found novel ways of integrating nature into the mix.
“I layered a lot of sounds of people tinkering on piano into the nature sounds, and it turned out really nicely,” he says. “It was a good way to get a lot of people into the piece.”
The finished video and recorded sound composition will be performed at 7:30pm Sept. 29, at the Visitor and Education Center, with the 442s playing live accompaniment to the video to add the final element to the composition. Admission is free, but attendees must RSVP in advance.
By the way, that upright green piano will also make an appearance at the performance.
“I actually ended up buying it and taking it home,” Maness says. “Anyone who played it signed it, so it really embodies the project. So it had to be at concert.”
Featured photo of the 442s at Jazz at the Bistro by Frenzia.