Date October 23, 2023
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Devanney Haruta: Investigating the life and death of musical instruments

As a graduate student in Brown’s music department, Haruta hopes to spark inspiration and reflection through her interactive piece, "Piano (de)composition."

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When does a musical instrument die? When it no longer produces sound? When it’s in poor playing condition? Or perhaps, simply, when there’s no one around to play it?

Anyone who has walked past the Orwig Music Building on the Brown University campus this year may have found themselves pondering these queries after stumbling upon “Piano (de)composition,” a project by Class of 2016.5 alumna Devanney Haruta, who is now a doctoral student at Brown.

Haruta’s outdoor installation invites people to interact with a piano placed in a sliver of woods next to Orwig, where it has sat since mid-February — and will continue to sit until Haruta graduates with her Ph.D. in a few years — entirely exposed to the elements. Over the last eight months, the piano has endured snowstorms, hail, floods, record-high temperatures and constant tinkering by passersby, both students and squirrels.

It is not the same piano as it was in February. And that’s the whole point.

“Every day you go out, it’s a different instrument,” Haruta said. “That one note that was stuck one time might not be stuck the next day. It has this unpredictability that I think makes it very exciting and lively to engage with.”

As a graduate student in Brown’s music department in the musicology and ethnomusicology track, Haruta focuses her research on musical instruments and materiality. While completing her master’s degree at Wesleyan University, Haruta was particularly moved by the work of Australian composer Ross Bolleter, who works with what he calls “ruined pianos.” The emotions evoked by Bolleter’s work formed the basis of her master’s thesis, in which Haruta looked at various case studies in which pianos were damaged or destroyed for the sake of art.

“I got very interested in how pianos were treated and how people reacted,” she said.

Devanney Haruta plays the piano
“I want this to become a resource for students who want to actively engage with the instrument and explore making music or art of any kind,” Devanney Haruta said.

At Brown, Haruta is seizing the chance to explore that relationship firsthand. She knew she wanted to create a similar project inspired by Bolleter and she explored ideas with one of her advisers, Associate Professor of Music Emily Dolan. A few months later, Dolan emailed Haruta: The music department was getting ready to dispose of an old practice piano in Steinert Hall, and it was worth checking to see if it might be repurposed for Haruta’s project.

Pianos are not like other instruments — such as a well-made violin — that get better with age, Haruta said. After decades of use, piano technicians may judge them as not financially worth keeping up with, and their “unplayable” condition can disqualify them from other forms of reuse, like donation.

“What do you do with an old piano that doesn’t work the way you want it to, that no one wants?” Haruta said. “A lot of them get sent to the dump. That was the destiny for this piano.”

Following about a year and a half of work with Music Department Manager Jennifer Vieira to gauge academic value, create budgets and execute safety surveys, the project was given a green light. On Feb. 17, 2023, a moving company installed the dump-destined piano in a quiet wooded area in between Orwig and Grant Recital Hall.

“I hope it offers creative inspiration, whether it just brings up some questions to ponder or elicits a creative response,” Haruta said. “I want this to become a resource for students who want to actively engage with the instrument and explore making music or art of any kind.”

The seeds of inspiration for Haruta’s project, which will form the basis of her Ph.D. dissertation, were planted on College Hill, where she was drawn by Brown’s Open Curriculum and completed her undergraduate education with a double concentration in music and mathematics.

“I was nurturing these different types of thinking, and I could switch back and forth between the two,” Haruta said of the dual pursuit. “It was like my brain suddenly had this extra energy that I couldn’t tap into from one discipline alone.”

detail shot of piano keys in disrepair
As the piano becomes weathered and begins to lose certain functionalities, Haruta hopes students will still be inspired to find new ways to interact with and create sound from the instrument. 

Her first ethnomusicology class with Associate Professor of Music Joshua Tucker in 2014 was crucial in helping her explore the social, political and cultural aspects of instruments, and she ended up focusing her undergraduate thesis on player pianos in early 20th-century America.

“I didn’t even know it was possible to study musical instruments at a university until I came here,” Haruta said. 

As Haruta continues her graduate education at Brown, she’s thinking about a future in the realm of academia. Serving as a teaching assistant for Brown Music Librarian and Lecturer Laura Stokes has been eye-opening. The combination of research and teaching inherent in a library role may offer “the best of both worlds,” Haruta said.

Documenting the piano’s decomposition has been constant fodder for her own and others’ existential thoughts of the future. Some of them can be overwhelming, raising big questions related to the impacts of climate change, function, usefulness and what it means to truly live.

Haruta says those thoughts may very well be best explored on the warped piano bench at 1 Young Orchard Ave.

“The more people interact with it, the more it takes on its own sort of afterlife,” Haruta said. “It’s not dead yet.”