The Phoenix Project rises: Jennifer Wright and the Skeleton Piano at BodyVox Theater

Composer and pianist Wright explains how she and her students are fighting climate change using instruments made from trash

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When Jennifer Wright saw a free piano on Craigslist that would be taken to the dump at the end of the weekend, she knew that couldn’t happen on her watch. So she picked up the piano in her trailer, stripped it down and created an entirely new instrument that she dubbed the Skeleton Piano.

The infamous “Skeleton Piano.” Photo by the composer.

“The Skeleton Piano sort of represents my trajectory as an artist,” says Wright, who shed the chrysalis of her classical background to pursue a career in experimental music. “It just took me so long to realize that I wanted to see and hear and make the culture that the world hasn’t seen yet. And that was when I finally found the Skeleton Piano—and it was the creature through which this transformation really happened for me.”

Wright’s transformation continues in The Phoenix Project, a concert that she and her students at the Jennifer Wright Piano Studio created to help battle climate change. It features what Wright calls transmogrified instruments (a.k.a. T.I.s), which were constructed from trash are the size of the person playing them, symbolizing their carbon footprint.

Recently, I spoke to Wright about The Phoenix Project. We talked about the creation of the Skeleton Piano, the challenges of fusing art and activism, All Imaginable Actions Must Be Taken—a piece in the concert that features a new, multi-keyboard instrument called the Chimaera—and much more.

The Phoenix Project: Art in the Time of Climate Emergency at BodyVox Theater, November 14.

ARTS WATCH: When you sit down to create something like The Phoenix Project, are you thinking, “How do I create something so memorable and powerful that people are going to say, ‘This actually changes the way I think’?”

JENNIFER WRIGHT: It’s always questionable whether you can do that at all, right? I think when you’re dealing with a really difficult, overwhelming, very negative subject like climate change, it’s very scary and the potential for people to want to just close off and not engage is huge. It’s too much to think about when you’re trying to get your kids’ lunches packed for school and pay your taxes, you know what I mean? Life is hard enough.

So that’s why I decided to involve my students, because if I could engage them and get them to do a long-term project–it just became a normal part of their vocabulary. The idea is that making art changes the artist. They’ve internalized it.

AW: Where does the process of building instruments out of trash begin?

WRIGHT: [The students] researched plastic and metal and mining and strip mining–and what all these things we’re doing to the environment. And often it would click in with something that they personally cared about. You know, one of my students got really upset when she saw a picture of a giant sea turtle that had a plastic straw up its nose, and it was drowning. And she was traumatized by this.

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That was a terrible thing to have to work though, but then she was like, “I’m [focusing on] plastic, because ocean plastic is not okay.” It was a process of discovery for the kids that was incredibly powerful, and that is what has come out in their transmogrified instruments.

AW: A bit ago, you brought up a detergent bottle. Can you talk about the process of getting a sound out of objects like that?

WRIGHT: The first thing that occurs to humans, if you give anybody anything and say, “Let’s make a noise out of it,” they either hit it or they hit something with it. I love that. Everybody has this percussive approach to the world, which is very fun. But the great thing about kids is that they just aren’t saddled with all these ideas about how the world should be.

Part of the show is this 12-minute documentary about the making of the T.I.s. And it shows some of these little snippets when we’re in lessons and we have a plastic clamshell or the detergent bottle and we’re saying, “What can we combine it with? Is it a good resonating body? Should we stretch some rubber bands over it and see what that does? Can you blow into it? Can it be like a wind resonator? Does it sound good to destroy this thing? Is that part of what we’re maybe trying to express?

At least one of [the students] “plays” her instrument by pretty much ripping it apart. And it’s incredibly stunning to see. It’s disturbing, but it’s been an amazing way to get out a lot of her anxiety, because no doubt, these kids are stressed. We’re all stressed. We learn about climate change, we start to understand the scope of it and we don’t know what to do with all of that anxiety. So in some ways, this has been a therapeutic thing, messing around with these objects and not being afraid to smash them and destroy them as well as cherish them and polish them.

AW: I have to ask you about All Imaginable Actions Must Be Taken because I’m really curious about the Chimaera.

WRIGHT: Basically, what it’s made out of is the guts of three toy pianos that I took apart and changed the hammers of. The metal rod and the action mechanism by which a toy piano makes its sound and the keys are there, but I sort of Frankensteined them together into this multilevel instrument where you can stand in the center and reach over and combine playing on any of the three [keyboards] in different ways.

I found some interesting metal structures that happened to, absolutely coincidentally, have metal rods on them that were purely decorative that were very similar to the rods on the inside of the toy piano. And I incorporated these metal structures onto this “creature.” So it’s got long legs, it’s got what I call these metal wings, it’s got three different toy piano keyboards on it and I left it ripped-apart looking, because that’s its aesthetic. The Chimaera is a creature that’s made up of many different creatures, and it’s this strange sort of monster, but also beautiful.

I love the toy piano and I love its strange little sad, out-of-tune-ness, and it’s tendency to be slightly creepy and nostalgic and have something of a childlike energy to it. So I thought this would be quite a wonderful thing to make and be able to play in really surprising ways—like the Skeleton Piano, but a younger, strange cousin of the Skeleton Piano.

AW: I know that this is a carbon-neutral performance and you’re going to be planting more than 400 trees—one for each audience member—to offset its impact. Does that make you think about the future?

WRIGHT: Everything we do has a carbon footprint far beyond what we would ever imagine. If we really understood the consequences of our consumerism, I think it would be paralyzing. It would be hard for people to function. We have to start dismantling those things and replacing them with things that are sustainable. Otherwise, when my students grow up, the world isn’t going to be recognizable in any way that’s positive.

Wright, Skeleton Piano, and kitty Kipper. Photo by Matias Brecher.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Tickets and scheduling information available at https://thephoenixproject.brownpapertickets.com

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About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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