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'History' in the Key of Art

Article Published: Jan. 27, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
'History' in the Key of Art

Pianista expert Michael Frassinelli, and his crew, work on a project.

Photo by Lauren Ohnesorge

Two-hundred and fifty-seven strings, thousands of pieces, a puzzle that doesn't quit.

To the "Pianistas," pianos weren't about the music, they were about potential, thousands of interconnecting parts that could be taken apart and constructed into a world of objects.

No one knows how or when the tribe found its first piano and decided to deconstruct it and turn its keys into ceremonial masks, jewelry and wigwams. Pianista expert Michael Frassinelli has a few theories.

"One theory is that it was sort of a secret society of Native Americans who found dilapidated and old pianos out in the west," he said. "Sometimes in the pioneer days, people moving out west would actually bring pianos with them."

But it's just one of many possibilities.

"Perhaps," he said, "in the late 18th century, they lived sort of outside the realm of civilized culture and about the middle of the 19th century started discovering piano parts ... surviving for years on the discarded pianos of dumpsites and dried up ghost towns."

The "Pianistas."

It's all rather convincing, until you read Frassinelli's bio and put it all into context. That's when you realize Frassinelli is an artist. And the "Pianistas?"

"It's a fictional tribe," he said. "I could talk about this forever, by the way."
Fictional. Completely made up.

And yet, after imagining the Pianistas for more than seven years, Frassinelli has enough stories about them to fill a very real textbook. And, taking a lap around the Catherine J. Smith (CJS) Gallery at Appalachian State University (in Farthing Auditorium, 733 Rivers St.), one might think there's evidence to support the tribe. A mask over there, a 13-foot architectural structure over here, both constructed entirely from piano parts. If a tribe didn't create the artifacts, who did?

"I did," Frassinelli said, carefully peeling ivory veneers off piano keys. "I create sculpture in the form of artifacts from the fictional tribe."

It's grueling work, and, by last week, he had already filled two tables with a piano's remains, and he hadn't even started on the piano key wheels. It's the fifth piano he's pulverized since coming to ASU two weeks ago. Since he started the project seven years ago?

"I've probably used about 25 pianos," he said.

Once the wires, wooden pieces and other assorted piano guts are separated, creativity replaces destruction. Frassinelli will work with ASU sculpture and jewelry students to create the unique pieces to display at the CJS Gallery through March.

"The work is going to be displayed in a natural history museum format," he said.

Think text panels with narrative to keep the culture of his fictional tribe alive, narrative from hours of thought and years of utilizing pianos. It started when he realized how difficult pianos were to move.
"I was about to move to a new house," he said, "and I was trying to give away the piano, and no one would take it because it was in pretty lousy shape."

Frassinelli, who earned his bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Connecticut in 1986, had already immersed himself in "found art," taking everyday objects and giving them new context as artwork.

"I thought to myself and said, 'This is the largest found object I've ever found,'" he laughed. "My wife was out of town one weekend, so I dismantled the piano, boxed it up and brought it to the new house ... Slowly, I started working with the material, starting with the wire, there are a lot of thick wires, and, of course, the keys and mechanisms."

Think 88 keys with 257 strings (because some keys are strung multiple times), 88 actions with 88 parts.

"You multiply it together, and it's just an enormous amount of things," Frassinelli said.

A recent trip to Alaska, discovering Eskimo history and survival aesthetics, influenced tribal-looking masks, carefully constructed from piano keys.

"Over the past seven years, I keep making objects, and stories just arrive," he said.
And the pianos?

"Since I've been doing this work, they find me," he said. "I'll have a show and, without a doubt, two or three people will say, 'Do you need a piano? Because I have one in my basement.'"

And his wife isn't the only supportive member of the Frassinelli household. His 6-year-old twins are quite interested in the Pianistas.

"They're fascinated," he said. "My son said, 'Daddy, I think I want to be a sculptor, but I think I want to make things out of things other than piano parts.'"

In the meantime, he's bringing new people in on the action, people like CJS Gallery employee Hanna Naegle.

"I used to play piano," she said, pulling apart a piece of wood that looks like it was once part of a piano key. "I had no idea how many little tiny parts ... there's so much. I had no idea."

CJS Gallery assistant director Ben Wesemann said it's definitely different than installations by past artists.

"But I like working with my hands, so this has been great," he said.

Frassinelli just smiled. It's a reception he's used to. By altering people's ideas of what a piano is, he's also transforming how they view art, particularly relevant in the classes he's been lecturing to this month at Appalachian's art department.

"It's exciting, because the students are very talented, and they have a lot of creativity, and they're able to sort of jump right in," Frassinelli said.

The Massachusetts-based sculptor will be working with students through Thursday's reception on a variety of pieces, including a wheeled cart. The artifacts will be unveiled at a special reception Jan. 27 from 5:30 to 7:30 and will be on display through March 1.

For more information on Michael Frassinelli, visit

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