Upright Piano Fuses With Man on Bike

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Photo: Michael Portanda

It’s sad for me to admit this, but no matter how thick my thighs may expand, I will never understand how to truly conquer an incline on a bike. While I already start to feel defeated enough when I have to add a tiny backpack to my body, slowing me down to a meager crawl, when someone zips on past me while I’m panting and heaving and traveling slower than I can walk, the last thing my little ego would want to see is a biker with an upright piano in tow.

My shortcomings aside, it’s stimulating to see someone in town who can expand our perceptions of what a performance is and where those performances can take place, and Eric Rich is doing just that. Inspired by friends in the band Blackbird Raum, Rich thought he would take busking to the Downtown Farmers Market with a newfound love of composing piano songs. By melding bike riding with piano playing, he’s created a rich atmosphere of music on the streets in a way that allows him to work on conquering his performance anxiety while sharing a formal talent in an informal environment.

Rich’s musical inclinations began when he started playing in hardcore punk bands, and he picked up the keyboard and piano about eight years ago to fill in for some recordings. He said that while he was in Alaska, someone introduced him to a different type of music, which started him on the track he currently rides on, approaching contemporary styles of songwriting à la Steve Reich. With the piano bike, Rich says that “it opened up a gateway for composition for me,” allowing him to work not only on solo piano compositions, but quartets and ensembles for up to nine musicians.

While the history of the pianobike thus far has generally stuck with the weekly farmers market, Rich has plans to expand the areas he travels to with a new piano setup, backed by his recent crowd-sourced project on Kickstarter. With the help of his brother, he found a Yamaha on the KSL classifieds and started welding a new integration system. The learning process has happened organically, as Rich and the people he works with find the devil in the details throughout the construction of the system. Of the new bike, Rich says, “The piano itself is lighter, which is surprising because it’s not much smaller. The whole bike is integrated into the system, so it’s not a trailer and a bike: It’s one system that works together.” Rich’s previous pianobike featured the two wheels of his bicycle that pulled his four-wheeled trailer with a ball hitch. “The old wheels on the trailer were non-pneumatic, so it was solid rubber all the way through, which I thought was great because you wouldn’t have to worry about pumping them up or anything, but they didn’t roll very easily, and they’re heavy.”

After the Kickstarter project (which received more funding than what he projected), he’s since felt the support of the community through donations, not only of time spent on the construction of the bike, but of an enclosed trailer to store the piano bike while not in use. “I had 3,000 dollars in my pocket to go buy a new [trailer], and I called my dad, and this very generous neighbor decided to donate their trailer. That’s been one of the biggest surprises: the overall generosity of people in building something like this, just wanting to help,” Rich says.

Despite having some extra lining in his wallet, the added funding ended up helping in the long run due to misunderstandings along the way with a combination of miscalculations during the manufacturing process. While explaining the development of creating the new system, Rich observed that the people who were giving him advice on how to build it were not really on track with what he wanted or what would work best. “I wanted to listen to people because I’m not an expert,” he says, but in the end, “I spent a lot of money that didn’t actually get to go into it that was wasted in the process of learning what I want to do.”

Of his performances, Rich envisions a day when he can extend his repertoire of locations to perform at and musicians to play with. While playing weekly Saturdays with friend Corbin Baldwin at the Downtown Farmers Market is currently his only solidified plan, he hopes that someday he can travel across the country with this contraption, whether that be by carting the piano via trailer, or someday by riding the bike (with piano attached) itself—if new carbon-fiber technology can make it light enough. Follow his journey by finding him on Facebook, or keep up with him by visiting his website at ericrichmusic.com.