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Pianos in public space: Atmospheric powers of a sonic object

Authors: Damien Masson*, Université de Cergy-Pontoise. Laboratoire MRTE
Topics: Cultural Geography, Political Geography, Qualitative Methods
Keywords: Atmospheres, pianos, public space
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Over the past fifteen years, urban spaces have seen and heard a new species flourish: pianos. Initially anecdotal in the public space, these musical instruments have settled permanently in cities’ streets, squares, parks, stations, etc. These instruments contribute to the renewal of uses in public spaces, where play is no longer restricted to children. They require forms of self-organization and negotiation, between players, and from the audience. They alter an aesthetic practice that is most often intimate and domestic, to pervade the public sphere. They redefine contemporary urban soundscapes.

How, and in what ways these objects appeared? How do they circulate, both on a global scale and within urban areas? What are the aesthetic and practical imaginations of the stakeholders who contributed to their spreading? Locally, how are they used, what kinds of practices do they create, both among players and audiences? What atmospheres do they generate, and what is their ambient power?

This paper aims to answer these questions by proposing an ‘atmospheric geopolitics’, which articulates atmospheres studies to everyday geopolitics. Based on sensory ethnographies around pianos located in Paris, and on videos circulating on the Internet, we show how the invitation to alter the sonic, and more broadly sensory, environment through amateur music playing contributes to redefining, temporarily, the publicness of these public spaces, which become, atmospherically, desirable or repulsive. Pianos, as apparently neutral and playful objects, contribute, on the other hand, to the enactment of specific sonic aesthetics, which reproduce existing social and cultural stratification.

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