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Piano Stories – Tuning Angelina Jolie’s Piano

“I sat atop a small rise in the empty desert refugee camp, looking down over the unmarked graves at the temple I’d spent the past few hours in tuning an old upright piano. An upright piano which until very recently had stood in a Namibian museum, and which in a few hours would be played by Angelina Jolie. It was unexpectedly moving, a real testament to the skill of the craftsman and artists who had spent weeks creating the film set. Upon reflection I would say this ranks as my most memorable piano assignment, partly because of the unusual surroundings and partly because I’d been asked to ignore my training. Rather than fix the piano to the best of my ability I was asked to maintain the untidy appearance of a long-neglected piano while ensuring it played well and sounded authentic. I can’t believe it’s already been twenty years since I tuned Angelina Jolie’s piano for the movie Beyond Borders.” - Ian

In 1999 Ian Burgess-Simpson Pianos was still a relatively new technical operation, working largely out of the front room of Ian’s Cape Town house. Piano servicing and rebuild projects were piling up, stretching the small team. It was during a frantically busy day that Ian took a call from someone claiming to represent a film production company requiring specialist piano skills. As if information enough, it was explained that Angelina Jolie was starring in a movie and would be playing a piano. The production crew needed Ian’s expertise for an unspecified duration to restore a relic of a piano currently gathering dust in a Namibian museum, and be on hand to make sure the piano was fit for purpose during the live shoot. This description fell somewhat flat when it became apparent Ian had no idea who Angelina Jolie was. It required a quick lesson in current popular culture by the excited piano technicians to cure Ian’s ignorance.

The initial details were sketchy. The piano had been chosen, an antique upright of dubious lineage and unknown character. Jolie who up until very recently could not play the piano, had spent considerable time learning Träumerei, the much loved seventh movement of Robert Shcumann’s Kinderszenen ("Scenes from Childhood"). She would play the piece live during filming of the movie Beyond Borders, a love story between international aid workers partly set in an African refugee camp. Filming was taking place in a purpose-built set in the Namibian desert on the outskirts of Swakopmund. Somewhat hesitantly Ian agreed to pack his tool case and make his way to Namibia.

Released in 2003, the film Beyond Borders received mixed reviews. Without question, the refugee camp piano played by the Sarah, the lead character (Angelina Jolie), had been authentically set up by Ian over the preceding couple of weeks. Based at a local Swakopmund school, Ian spent the first week of his piano safari getting to know the upright piano chosen for the shoot, and arguing with the powers that be about the merits of keeping the keyboard in its irregular state. There was also concern about the decision to film Jolie playing live, rather than to pre-record the audio. However the decision had been made and she had worked hard to get Schumann’s haunting melody ready. This is particularly impressive given she was not a pianist, which meant she took on the challenge specifically for the role. The piano students among us can appreciate this effort, as technically simple as Träumerei may seem.

Purpose built refugee camp film set

After battling the piano for a week, making adjustments no sane piano technician would dream of making, the piano looked as one might expect a vintage piano forgotten to the world in an impoverished refugee camp might. However, it sounded somewhat better than a long forgotten piano would thanks to Ian’s dedicated methodical work. It was now time to transport the piano to the purpose-built refugee camp in the desert. Upon arrival it was placed in the “temple”, against a wall of beautiful murals. Ian was shipped out to the desert to ensure the refugee piano remained functional and relatively in tune given its desert surroundings. With no Piano Life Saver fitted to regulate the humidity on the soundboard, the piano was at the mercy of the desert climate. Satisfied the piano was ready for humanitarian action, Ian settled in to wait for the big moment his technical skill would be featured in a mainstream movie for the first time.

An interview with the film's director, what better backdrop than the lovingly restored piano on set

Ian waited. And waited some more. And then waited a bit longer as the piano scene was pushed back again and again in the filming schedule. It was to be a night-time shoot, which meant he spent a few full nights on standby in case they decided to film the scene. From the start it had been agreed Ian would prepare the piano and remain on set until after the scene had been shot, in case there were any issues with the piano. On the third or fourth day of waiting, a senior member of the production crew inquired curiously about the identity of the guy hanging around who didn't seem to be adding much value, only to be told it was the piano guy. Hastily he came to the snap decision that it was a ridiculous waste of money to keep Ian on staff and he should be sent packing, Ian's work was done.

And so it was that Ian was driven back to Swakopmund and loaded onto the first flight home, hoping the piano remained functional after all the unusual set up work required to bend it into shape while not altering its appearance. If something mechanical had gone wrong with the piano during the shoot no-one would have been on hand to fix it and the entire exercise would have been wasted.

Ian recollects the final day as follows; “I believe they ended up filming the scene the night after I left, and I heard nothing from the production crew about how it went and whether the piano had been acceptable. And of course whether Angelina Jolie was happy with it. I decided no news was good news, although it still took me many years to watch the movie. When I eventually did I was more relieved than I care to admit that the piano sounded authentic in the context of the story line. Pianos are remarkable, they take you to interesting places and can lead you on unexpected adventures.”

Here's the clip you've been waiting for, the piano scene. After such a detailed description of the process leading up to filming, you might expect her entire performance to have made it into the final cut. But sadly the piano, and her performance, is only featured for a relatively short time. Still, it's a wonderful story and Ian did a great job with the piano!


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