Welcome to the Pianodrome: the Fringe venue made from old pianos

Using more than 40 discarded pianos to build an amphitheatre with a unique sonic quality, Pianodrome co-director Matt Wright reveals how he and his team have turned the library of Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School into an off-beat Fringe venue.

I recently learned that when sound waves enter your ear, not only do thousands of tiny hairs vibrate in response, but the signals that they produce through the neural networks of your brain are actually resonating sympathetically to the sounds themselves. The neurons which pass these signals to the brain start to vibrate electronically, in tune with the sounds that you hear. In this way, if you listen to a piece of music, your neural networks are literally playing their own version of that piece inside your brain.

There is a special acoustic atmosphere in the Pianodrome. Strike a chord in the middle of the space and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the pianos which form the structure singing back at you. Our amphitheatre is built from over 40 discarded pianos – each one a piano that has reached the end of its playable life and was otherwise destined for the dump. The design, which my dear friend and Pianodrome co-director Tim Vincent-Smith has been improving since he first had the idea over eight years ago, is based around a circle of pianos which are used in their entirety as building blocks for the rest of the structure.

For this installation we didn’t want to miss a trick. Part of the preparation for each of these pianos is to wedge its sustain pedal down, meaning the dampers which usually mute the strings are pushed up and the strings are left to resonate in sympathy with the sound waves that apprehend them. The strings pick up any sound in the room and keep on ringing, adding a very special additional colour to the reverberant quality of the space itself. Along with the natural acoustics of the room, the sonic warmth of the wooden panelling and the giant trumpet shape of the Pianodrome’s amphitheatre design, the space has its own unique sonic quality. Add musicians and an audience, along with all their neurons vibrating in sympathy together with the music, and performances in the Pianodrome are a truly resonant experience!

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    This new Pianodrome amphitheatre has been designed specifically for the square room in which it sits, a former library for the students of the Old Royal High, with its tall octagonal cupola and bright, airy atmosphere. It’s an ideal temporary home for us to host our Summer ‘Resonancy’; we’ve been open since 1 July, hosting a series of free lunchtime concerts as well as evening shows, workshops and building-wide jams, and now we’re excited to dive into the busy citywide madness of the Fringe.

    Throughout August we're opening the Old Royal High as an off-beat Fringe venue, with locally grown music, theatre, dance and visual art filling all corners of the building in a massive celebration of the culture which Edinburgh is blessed with year round. Our free Lunchtime Concerts continue, as well as the return of Pianodrome Live, our carefully crafted evening show featuring music from across the musical spectrum. Me and Tim’s band, with accordionist Daniel Dumnov, S!nk, perform again in the venue we created as our dream performance space. Tim presents his first theatre show, Playing Beethoven; Lucy Hopkins blesses us in her Ceremony of Golden Truth; Pianodrome favourite Sean Logan presents Full Spectrum; and there’s music throughout the month from Esther Swift, Matt Carmichael & Fergus McCreadie, Andrea Baker, Jasmine Power, Fellow Pynins, Brudenell Piano Sessions, plus many more artists we love that we think Fringe audiences will love too.

    Taking on the Old Royal High is a much bigger challenge than we could have imagined, with its huge rooms and warren-like layout, but our enthusiasm has been resonating throughout the city too, and an amazing list of collaborators have been getting involved. We’re working with local gluten-free legends Bellfield Brewery to run our Bellfield Terrace Bar and Resonancy Lounge. Our long term musical pals Tinderbox Orchestra take over the Tinderbox Grand Hall to both perform their own Fringe show and programme other exciting artists across the month. St Mary’s Music School is providing awesome musicians for our lunchtime concerts, and our funders have been incredibly generous.

    As our collaborations grow, and the word spreads, we’re hoping to strike a chord with the city and really harness this collective enthusiasm to make something very special happen this August.

    Pianodrome co-directors Tim Vincent-Smith (l) and Matt Wright (r). PIC: Douglas Roberts

    The Pianodrome's Fringe programme can be found online at https://www.pianodrome.org/theatre.

    S!nk perform in the Pianodrome. PIC: Douglas Roberts