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The Legend


of the

The Unbelievable Story of the History and Culture of a Curious People of North America

Compiled and Edited by Michael Frassinelli

VERTICAL PIANO PRESS London, Boston and Des Moines in association with the NATIONAL PIANISTA ARCHIVES and the VENETO FOUNDATION

Copyright © 2013 Vertical Piano Press

All images Copyright © 2013 Michael Frassinelli Additional photography by David Carmack used with his permission, and mark as “DC”

FIFTH EDITION Second Printing (Hardcover) All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, carbon paper, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing by the publisher. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Frassinelli, Michael. Myth of History: The Unbelievable Legend of the Pianista Peoples of North America/Michael Frassinelli; p. cm. “In association with the National Pianista Archives and the Veneto Foundation.” Published in conjunctiion with an exhibit organized by the National Pianista Archives ISBN 0-295-97564 1. Pianista culture-Exhibitions. 2. Pianista art-Exhibitions. 3. North America-Antiquities-Exhibitions I. National Pianista Archives. II. Title. E99.E7FRAS 2007 731’.75’089964-dc15 95-2307 CIP The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1984 Made from recycled sheet music and piano parts. No trees were harmed in the making of this catalog.


The way of all things is this~ music of the land, music of the sky, music of ivory, music of the circle, music of iron, music of the hands, music of the discarded, music of the glorified, music of wood, music of the dust, music of the universe. ~Pianista prayer, date unknown


Table of About the editor…87 The Last of the Pianistas…82 Veneto Journal…80 Photograph of A.R.V.…79 Alternative Theories…76 Re-enactments and Replicas…74 Bird Warrior and Ceremonial Burning…72 Recent Discoveries…70 1904 Milton with Exploded View…68 Ripley’s Believe it or Not…66 Sculptures and Masks…64 Pianista War Canoe…62 Shaman Cart and Piano Elixir…60 Eastern Woodland Observatorium…58 Pianista Mountain Observatorium…56 Pianista Observatorium…54 Ceremonial Effigies…52 Totems and Statuary…50 Calendars and Sundials…48 Pianista Mandala…46

Contents 8…Introduction 10…A Note about the Texts 14…Ceremonial Objects 16…Common Objects 18…Masks 18…Bloodthirsty Lion 22…Weapons 24…Sculpture 25…Bird-Spirit-Man 26…Troubled Buddha and figures 28…Musical Instruments 30…The American Pianista Ensemble 32…A Noiseful Joy 34…Miss “B” The Incredible Dancing Bird 36…Toys and Games 37…Pianista Figurines 38…Nautical Artifacts 40…Dream of the Inland Sea 42…Song of the Pianista 44…Pianolarians

The Pianista Peoples of North America

were a curious tribe of disputed origin. They were not members of any

Native American tribe but more than likely arrived either at the time of

Columbus or the late 18th Century from Southern Europe, living out of view of the “civilized” society. They used piano parts for their material

needs, utilizing every part, much like the Plains Indians utilized the buffalo. How this began we do not know; all we really know is that they

were extraordinarily creative in their use of materials. This catalog and exhibit shows just a small fraction of their output, examples of which have

been found from coast to coast, each region having its own distinctive style.

The exhibit and catalog are divided up into several major types

of objects including masks, weapons, common and ceremonial objects,

toys and games, vehicles and boats, shelter, and musical instruments, among others. These delineations are somewhat limiting, as many of the objects take on the properties of two or three of these classifications. One classification comes from the Pianistas themselves. “Sculpture” was

derived from a native word that is difficult to interpret, but can be loosely translated as “without any particular use.” ‹8›

The Pianistas were very prolific but an accurate history of their

culture and an interpretation of the true meaning of these objects can only

be guessed at, for there was no written language, and no descendants survive. It should be noted that Pianista artifacts in the past were variously thought of as primitive crafts, and cult objects, and curios. Documentation by collectors was non-existent, misleading or completely fabricated. The

objects themselves may have been altered by misguided museum workers and authentication is often difficult.

The works are shown with catalog notes, mostly culled from

historical record and contemporary accounts, many of which reflect

the sensibilities (or lack thereof) of the period, and some interpreted

from primary source materials that were badly damaged and all but incomprehensible



possible, the editors have tried to reconcile early theories and observations with a contemporary eye, especially in light of recent research. Please

enjoy the catalog and

while walking through

the museum exhibit,

feel free to touch any of

the objects unless otherwise

noted or inherently dangerous. To

use an old Pianista saying, you should move

through this catalog and the exhibit (and life) “slowly, with feeling.” ‹9›

A note about the texts: As mentioned, an accurate account of the history of this curious culture is difficult. There are no known descendants of the tribe and contemporary accounts from the turn of the century were varied, impossible to verify and in some cases are hard to believe. Much of the text for this exhibit comes from the scholarly work of an anthropologist who taught at the Teacher’s College (precursor to Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina) in the late 1800’s. His name was Nathanial Greenville, and his specialty was native cultures. He first became acquainted with Pianista artifacts while traveling in the West after the Civil War, and did extensive field work, in Alaska and California for the most part, and some along the Eastern Coast. Although much of his writing reflected the prejudices and misinformation of his era, his theories debunked and his research discredited, his writings form a large portion of our knowledge of the Pianistas. Without his tireless dedication to the study of this people, we would know virtually nothing of their culture. We thank his family and the ASU Department of Anthropology for allowing us to use his notes and published works for much of the text in this catalog. Unless otherwise noted, other texts were supplied by the editor, except for found texts, most likely written by other contemporary anthropologists and researchers, whose names are lost to the ages.

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Nathaniel Greenville Date unknown

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f the thousands of tribes of North America, the Pianista peoples







Historians offer differing opinions of the customs, social structures and even the very existence of these very curious individuals.

Named after their basic source of materials (the Pianoforte), the

Pianistas populated many different regions of North America, but are believed to have originated from Europe. (The two prevailing theories of their arrival to this continent differ greatly. One claims the first Pianistas arrived quite recently, between 1500 and 1600 AD in crude sailing vessels. Another theory suggests that several millennia ago, a land bridge existed that extended from what is now the toe of Italy to Cape Cod, and that wandering clans would move ‘herds’ of Pianofortes with them on the journey to the West.)

From what has been uncovered, it is thought that the Pianista

peoples survived solely on the Pianoforte for everything except food. (Ironically, the Pianoforte is practically inedible.) Their resourcefulness with various materials found in the Pianoforte ~ wood, steel, ivory, ebony, leather, felt, copper ~ was only matched by their Native counterparts on the Western Plains who utilized the American Bison for their needs, and some Arctic Tribes such as the Yup~ik and Inuit who would catch Seal and Whale for their many uses. The Pianistas believed that by destroying the creature they could give it new life, through everything it provided.

From a recently discovered copy of Lost Tribes of North America, published 1843 ‹ 13 ›

Ceremonial Objects

During tribal ceremonies, many different objects were used. D a n c e f a n s were richly decorated and used to accentuate the dancers hand gestures. P r a y e r w h e e l s were used, as in Tibetan society, to invoke blessing and send healing thoughts. (Some very similar objects with special markings have been found and identified as g a m b l i n g w h e e l s .) Many types of ceremonial jewelry have been discovered and historians have determined that the materials that are used may have caused the curious markings on the necks of the celebrants, previously thought to be scarification patterns of a secret society.

Dance Fans (Detail) Skull Staff Head

Ceremonial Necklaces

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Prayer Wheel

Ta l k i n g Sticks were historically used in council circles; the staff was handed from person to person, and the individual holding it had the attention of the tribe and could speak his or her mind. (Legend has it President Teddy Roosevelt eventually coined the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick,� after speaking with some council members through an inexperienced translator.) Wa r C l u b s were occasionally used during council circles when the privilege of the talking stick was overused.

Talking Stick and War Club

Ceremonial Jewelry

Duck Staff Mask Meditation Egg

Ceremonial Short Staffs Although some of the true ceremonial functions of the Meditation Egg remain unclear, some theories contend that it had a similar function to the Talking Stick in important tribal meetings; some say it was rubbed for good luck, which would explain its smooth and oiled surface; it is rumored to have occasionally been thrown at tribal members holding a viewpoint differing from the chief, leading to at least one death and several instances of very serious concussions for some others.

Common objects Tools and utensils were necessary for everything from cooking, farming, and hunting, to sculpting and mask-making. The Pianistas prided themselves on their own ingenuity for utilizing the wealth of materials in the Pianoforte to create all they needed. Pictured are just a few of the objects that have survived the ravages of time. Often useful objects were created for a single purpose, sometimes a single use, then discarded. Sometimes however, aesthetics or convenience won out over practicality. Note the spoon-tined tool known as a grünber or “eating utens il”, ( b elo w ) . For a time they were widely use for daily meals until it was discovered that it took more energy to eat with than the nutrients derived from the food being eaten. A design change was ordered by the high council to avoid what was mistakenly thought to be a famine. Tools and utensils, with Grünber, below at left


Plate and Ceremonial Utensils

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Large Mallets

Hide Beater

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Masks were an integral part of Pianista ceremonies. They are the single most common artifact to be found over the last one hundred years. The variety among them is astounding, and each regional tribe developed their own particular style, ranging from a motif of concentric circular forms in the North, to the more anthropomorphic forms of the South and East. Western tribes tended to create more experimental, abstract forms, often creating “hybrid� masks, that served as both masks and weapons or musical instruments. The mask were used to represent animal spirits and ancestors during dance performances, and were elaborately decorated. Many utilized the mechanisms of the Pianoforte to create movement to remind the audience that the masks themselves were alive. Mask-makers were revered and, occasionally, hated. (As the masks got more and more elaborate, they became more difficult to wear and impossible to see through.)

Dream Mask

Square Halo Mask

Eyeball Mask

Moving Eye Mask Harvest Mask

Large Tufted Mask

Right: Blood-thirsty Lion Mask

Goat Skull Death Mask

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Blinking Monkey Mask

Large Ceremonial Mask

Son of Square Halo Mask ‚ 20 ›

Clockwise from top: Cosmos Mask Bull Mask King Fish Mask Tooth Mask Holey Mask Afflicted Eye Mask Transformation Mask Screeching Hawk Mask Split Head Mask Center: Annoyed Ancestor Mask

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The Pianista people were peace-loving people; their society was founded on the principles of art, music and mutual respect. They did, however, have an occasional need for weapons. Unfortunately, for spiritual or material reasons, they were not good weapon makers. In fact, there are very few examples of Tom-o-Hawk Pianista weapons in existence today for two reasons: they were often made poorly, and fell apart upon use, and the weapon-makers themselves, when testing out their work, would often end up killing themselves by accident.

Battle Axe, Spear and Shield Long Bow and Arrows

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From left to right:



a. Spiked Clapper b. Harpoon

e. g.

c. b.

c. Bolo / Mace d. Battle Axe Mandolin e. Battle Scythe f. Convincing Stick


g. Battle Hammer

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The Pianistas were a very busy people, but they were also adept at utilizing their free time. During the long winter months, activities were created to pass the time and entertain. The result of these periods of somewhat aimless activity were many examples of sculpture and toy s. Adults would put together objects for their own amusement from the leftover materials around them. Some of the objects may have taken the form of freestanding effigies; some would be hung on the wall of the dwelling. The mechanisms of the Pianoforte allowed many of these objects to recreate movement, which may have symbolized the activity in the warmer months. Children would use whatever scraps of materials leftover to make their own figurines, dolls, games and other amusements. (See Danc ing Bi rd F i g u re ) A favorite game many children played was to stare into a box that had moving figures in it until they were in a kind of trance, and then fell asleep. Dancing Bird Figure

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Opposite: Spirit Bird Man, detail

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Troubled Buddha Bird Warrior

Pagan Figure

Young Flightless Bird

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Snake Fetishes

Spirit Under Attack

Snake Mask

Nervous Machine

Comb-Like Object

Grave Guardian Unknown Object Dancing Birds

Running Figure Object # 1

Nightmare Wall Mask


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Musical instruments

The Pianistas were fascinated by the sounds made by the Pianoforte, and tried many ways to recreate some of those sounds after it was destroyed. They believed that all the material would resonate with the sound that it helped to create in its previous existence. For years, historians were puzzled by the fact that many musicians from these tribes were blind. One theory held that they were revered, for it was believed that they were able to see beyond this world into the realm of the spirits. Another stated that the inclusive nature of the Pianistas allowed a special place in ceremonial performance for those not able to hunt and build shelter. Upon further research and closer examination of the instruments themselves, the common view today is that the elaborate decoration and seemingly haphazard construction of some of the instruments may have caused some unlucky musicians to lose an eye while retuning their instrument. (This may also explain the traditional and highly complex atonal harmonic system used by this culture for generations.) Piandolin-

A stringed instrument with variable tuning with a sound not unlike the Greek bouzouki or Russian balalaika. Sometimes played with ribbed tutti to create a scratching sound.

Spirit Frightener- (or “Boom-Box”) More of a noise maker, used to ward off evil spirits or wild animals, it was sometimes used to wake sleeping musicians, to add random percussion, or to quiet children. PianjoThis instrument is often associated with shamanistic rituals. Related to the oud, this stringed instrument can be plucked or struck with the fingers or a stick. ‹ 28 ›

Ceremonial Finger DrumKeys are tapped causing hammers to strike against a paper drum head to produce rhythm within a limited scale.

ChimesSounds made from different common objects of various materials were often used to create atmosphere and rhythm. Fiddle MaskPlayed with a bow, this instrument, doubled as a mask, one of many examples of Pianista “hybrid” objects discovered.

Spiked LuteAlso known as the “Porcupine”, this large harp sometimes doubled as a weapon.

Fish BassUpright stringed instrument, plucked or played with a bow, often used for water ceremony dances.

Box xylophonePlayed with soft hammers, this instrument is acoustically related to the balafon from Ghana and the Indonesian gambang.

The American Pianista Ensemble In the fall of 2004, an eclectic group of artists and ethnomusicologists embarked on a long musical journey that culminated in producing the landmark recording A Noiseful Joy: Traditional Music of the Pianista Peoples of North America. Up until that point, the music of this enigmatic culture had existed only in history books and in the stories of the descendants of those who had heard those sounds last made over a hundred years earlier.

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John Edmond Richardson

Strings, percussion, and vocalization

Mr. Richardson is a musicologist specializing in pre-industrial folk societies. His abilities in site reading pictographs has won him acclaim in several cities in the West, and he was recently awarded the MacDaniels Prize for his research on stringless fret instruments. He has been Professor Emeritus at the International Institute of the Americas, in Albuquerque, New Mexico since 1977 or ‘78, or perhaps as early as 1968.

Joan Redbird Pennington

Pianjo, shaken and beaten objects, ceremonial finger drum, vocals Ms. Pennington has extensive experience in early music from around the globe. She studied acoustics in the caves of France, where she believes echoes of the world’s first music are still reverberating. As a musician, she has made recordings on over a hundred different instruments, many of her own construction, using materials as diverse as cast bronze, human hair and plankton. She currently teaches composition and modern dance at the University of Anchorage.

Michael Frassinelli Instrument maker, percussion, occasional strings and whoops

Paul “Mix” Masterson

Sound recording and engineering, percussion and hardware Mr. Masterson has been in and around the world of recording since the age of 5, when he pressed his own record made entirely out of melted army men. A musician in his own right, he was the founder of the influential progressive folk band Pine Pitch. He has made field recordings on all seven continents, most recently returning from capturing on tape the chants of feral surfers in southern Australia.

Trained as a sculptor, Mr. Frassinelli has been interested in music for years. He recreated the traditional Pianista instruments used on this recording from sketches and written descriptions that he discovered in a letter found in a Lone Ranger lunch box at a flea market in Bakersfield, California. He is currently working on a documentary film about the culture and controversial history of the Pianistas, and engaged is in several copyright infringement lawsuits. ‹ 31 ›

A Noiseful Joy was a project one hundred and twelve years in the making. Reverend John Lewis Brook, a progressive minister from Ohio, spent much of his life gathering information about the culture of the Pianistas, and its musical traditions in particular. As a boy, he had heard stories from his father about a tribe he had encountered on his way to California. He recounted wild dances around fires and strange music in the air. This inspired young John to take up the piano. After being told by several teachers that he had no talent for music, he decided to try religion. He had heard a minister give a lecture at his church about the missionary work to be done in the West and, thinking that it would be a way for him see this extraordinary culture for himself, entered the seminary. In 1893, after his graduation from the St. Thomas School of Theology and Metallurgy, and armed with a recent invitation for employment as a missionary in Nevada, the Reverend John Lewis Brook twenty-one year-old Reverend Brook boarded a train headed west. This trip would change his life forever. On the way the train broke down outside of Chicago. While waiting for the next available train, Rev. Brook decided to take in some of the exhibits at the World’s Fair. Among the highlights was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. On the way out of the exhibition area, behind the performers’ tent, Brooks came across a man selling trinkets, elixirs, Native crafts and some strange objects he’d not seen before. Upon closer inspection he saw that they were in fact musical Promotional poster of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West instruments. The salesman claimed that they were made by the “Peonistas”, a peculiar tribe “unbeknownst by Common Folk and All but died out save for these Art-i-facts [sic].” Brook immediately bought up the lot with the money he had saved for his missionary work, and so began his long and sporadically documented career as collector and amateur historian of this tribe. ‹ 32 ›

Flash forward to 1989. Artist Michael Frassinelli, while traveling out West, comes across an open-air flea market outside of Bakersfield, CA. In a rusted tin lunchbox he finds detailed sketches, faded photographs, and a letter, describing (in broken English) musical instruments and other objects “made of woods, wire, felt and ivory keese, unlike anything I known in this country [sic].” The letter went on to say that the artifacts were won in a poker game from a down-on-his-luck preacher. It might have been tossed aside and lost forever if Frassinelli had not recognized the identity of the author of the letter: it was Alfonzo Renato Veneto, the name of a distant relative who worked for a time as an actor in early Hollywood westerns, and whose name he had just happened to remember after having seen it that very summer on a publicity photograph found among his late grandfather’s effects. (As it turned out, they were not related at all; the name was just very close to his Italian great-grand uncle four times removed, who spelled his first name with a “ph” instead of an “f”.) However, inspired by the coincidence, Frassinelli spent the next fourteen years collecting material, building instruments, researching historical archives, and searching for a group of musical adventurers to recreate a sound that had not been heard for nearly a century and had yet to be recorded. ‹ 33 ›

Photograph with illegible signature thought to be of Alfonzo Renato Veneto

Miss "B", The Incredible Dancing Bird

By the turn of the 20th Century, the Pianistas had fallen on hard times. Their land had been taken away, the population was dwindling, and much of their cultural heritage had been lost. Members of the tribe were forced to sell off ceremonial masks and other traditional objects just to survive. These were picked up by collectors, artists and other con men for a pittance. These then made their way to pawn shops and various antique stores, and the occasional roadhouse stand. It was at one of these road-side general stores in New Jersey that Cyrus Braintree acquired Miss “B”, the Incredible Dancing Bird. Much has been written about both Braintree and Miss “B”, but the facts have never been quite clear. What is clear is that between the years 1921 and 1929, Braintree took an innocent children’s toy (once belonging to members of the Pianista tribe living in Brooklyn) and created one of the most popular Vaudeville shows of its time. With the help of a friend who was bicycle repairman, he made a coin operated jukebox that would cause the small bird figurine to dance to the music. It was an immediate hit; the combination of exotic Indian tales and Jazz Age dance styles had people lining up for blocks. He began showing the machine at a local arcade, but soon it became clear that a great deal of money could be made, and so took it on the nickelodeon circuit. Miss “B” reached the height of popularity in 1927, when a New York jazz band called The Bird-Dog Five recorded a novelty hit called “Ain’t Miss ‘B’ Heaven” for Okeh Records, which sold thousands of copies. In that year alone, at least six short films were made of her dance routines, including rare footage of her foray into ballet, which some believe was the nail in the coffin of an already faltering career. Tragically, Miss “B” was destroyed in a hotel fire on East 42nd Street in Manhattan in November of 1929, while Braintree, down on his luck, was trying to stage a comeback tour. Braintree survived the fire, but never recovered from the loss. He made several attempts to create new versions of the bird figure (of which Dancing Bird Figure is an example), but with no success. In his suicide note, he claimed that the tribe had put a curse on him. ‹ 34 ›

A still of the famous vaudeville star dancing in a newsreel film made in 1926.

Dancing Bird Figure is one of a few surviving examples of the many attempts made to replicate Miss “B” after her untimely death 1929.

Original 78 RPM record of the Bird-Dog Five hit song. The song was hugely popular among the youth of the time. ‹ 35 ›

Pianista Toys and Games

The Pianistas were a playful people, and many of the objects discovered over this past century reflected their love of toys and games. Many were made for the enjoyment of children, and were either invented or styled after others they had seen. These often took the form of small figures or dolls, and several are pictured at right. These ranged in style from crudely bound abstract bundles to elaborately decorated figures inspired by ceremonial costumes. Although their influence is undocumented, the resemblance to Kachina dolls of the Hopi and Zuni tribes of the Southwest is evident. Also pictured is an example of a Pianista version of checkers or chess. It is unclear how this particular game was played, but it seems to have had some sort of elaborate scoring system and occasionally alternate playing pieces. Unfortunately this, set—whose playing pieces are made of lead weights used in weighting piano keys—had a negative effect on the ability (and general health) of those who played over a number a years, making them forget the rules of the game, and so new rules were frequently invented.

Above, clockwise: Checker-Set, small bird figurines, Wire Balls, Hammerhead, Square Foot Right, clockwise: King Hammerhead, Small Goddess, Skeleton Man, Poet Figure (Photos by DC) ‹ 36 ›

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Nautical Artifacts

Pictured is a sail recovered from a salvaging expedition off the coast of South Carolina in the early 1930’s. Experts disagree, but it has been attributed, by some nautical anthropologists, to a little-known enclave of the South Eastern Coastal Pianistas. The mysterious markings on the sail have been interpreted variously as a guide for celestial navigation or a crude fishing map of the Hatteras coastline. Salvage boat the Golden Quest off the coast of South Carolina, 1931

Others, such as Dr. Jean Hill (former faculty of the University of North Carolina and from whose personal collection the sail is on loan) believes that the Pianistas believed in the spiritual power of the created image. This power, they believed, could manifest into physical phenomena (for example, wind). In this way the artist or shaman could ensure a successful sailing journey or even good fishing.

Dr. Jean Hill, in a recent photo.

Some evidence may refute this. Her former colleague (and ex-husband) Dr. Roland Hill points out in a recent article of Anthropology Journal that the Pianistas, true to their chosen material of wood, ivory, steel and felt, did not in fact use sails on their vessels.

Moreover, these vessels were often not sea-worthy at all, given the weight and odd construction, and so fishing was done from shore with wire nets. Mr. Hill hypothesizes that the sail was found on shore by members of the tribe who, while waiting for fish to bite, passed the time by drawing with a rusty wire.

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Odd markings on the sail may have been created for navigation, to keep away evil, or to conjure wind and good fishing.

Dream of the Inland Sea Evidence of the culture of the Pianistas has been found throughout North America, from the Eastern woodlands to the Plains and as far north as Southwestern Canada. One theme that emerges from the cultural objects from these disparate geographical locations is the legend of the Inland Sea. Known by scientists as the Cretaceous Seaway, or the Western Interior Seaway, this body of water extended from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians at its peak, about 100 million years ago.

The Western Interior Seaway, as imagined on an early map, circa 1713 Below: Imaginative view of the ocean world; an object known as DreamFish.

This huge body of water populated by fantastical creatures was a quest for early explorers and the legend of its vastness and complexity was a source of inspiration to the Pianistas.

The strange fish and sea creature imagery that emerged from the Pianista culture seemed to have been brought about by a state of consciousness they called Waterland: a fluid, transitional time between unconsciousness, dream-state and self-imposed exhaustion, where the line between reality and imagination is removed. In this state, the elements of language, imagery, music, emotion, solid objects and time float and intermingle like the motion of water upon itself. Practitioners of this highly specialized ritual would go through cycles of intense creativity followed by long periods of confused silence and eating. ‚ 40 ›

Clockwise: Framed Catfish; Fish; fisherman holding fish sculpture found on the coast of Portland, Oregon, 1934; Fish Bass (instrument); Harp Jaw-Fish; Pollywog Fish

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Song of the Pianista

This little known work, based on an accumulation of Pianista stories and legends, was written by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1841. Henry was a historian, explorer, and geologist who was superintendent of Indian affairs for Michigan from 1836 to 1841. The epic poem was based on his earlier work The Myths of the Pianista, compiled by Mr. Schoolcraft and his wife Jane. (Jane was an Ojibway Indian whose name translated into English as ‘The Woman of the Sound Which the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky’. Her kinship with members of the Pianista tribe allowed Henry special access to some of the elders who, in the summer of 1838, Third Edition copy of Song of the Pianista relayed the old legends to Schoolcraft.) from 1852 The story of the poem centers on a hero’s journey of a mythic figure named Pianista. It chronicles his birth, his coming-of-age, his courting and tragic loss of the beautiful Arietta, as well as adventures with his friends. Written with sensitivity and an ear for the rhythms of the culture that inspired it, Song of the Pianista may well have been regarded as a classic today were it not for a very limited number of printings. The four examples pictured represent half of the total number of copies in existence. (Note: Another of Schoolcraft’s works, The Myth of Hiawatha, got considerably more attention when a poet named Longfellow wrote another epic poem, based on that myth. It was published in 1855 to wide acclaim, infuriating the hottempered Schoolcraft, who publicly called Longfellow a ‘hack’ and, according to one account, challenged the poet to a fist fight for stealing his ideas. The similarity between the two poems is uncanny, and First and Second Edition copies, under has been the subject of debate between literary historians for years.) bullet-proof glass

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Fourth Edition, 1854, publisher not listed. Only known copy ‹ 43 ›


Ernst Haeckel was a German zoologist and illustrator active at the end of the nineteenth century. He was a contemporary of Darwin, and his research and artistry produced several publications, including the groundbreaking Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (General Morphology of Organisms). His specialty was a group of microscopic organisms that have existed since Precambrian time, known as radiolarians. In 1869, he was invited to New York to speak at the opening ceremonies of the new American Museum of Natural History. On a tour of the museum he came across a small exhibit of newly acquired artifacts from the American West. The ceremonial objects were of unknown origin, but were believed to have been made by a tribe in the Indian Territories near modern day Kansas. What he saw was very familiar to him, though he had never seen the artifacts before in his life. The small “dream objects” were fetishes made of wood, wire, felt and other material and said to be representations of images seen in the dreams or visions of tribal elders or shamans. These objects were said to possess the power of the dreamer and so were highly sought after in these societies. (The group on display had apparently been confiscated from Union soldiers returning from duty on the frontier some years before. They had been donated by the War Department after having been found behind a desk in a box marked “Paperweights and Sundries”.) What fascinated Haeckel was that these objects were virtually identical in form to many of the free-swimming protozoa that he had been studying for the past twenty years. The radiating spokes, concentric circular forms, flowing tendrils and other common motifs of the shamanistic relics were eerily reminiscent of the spherical skeletons and pseudopodia of his oftstudied radiolarians. He theorized that these images appeared during a period of sleep or trance, when the individuals involved would actually leave their bodies and join the microscopic world of humans’ oldest ancestors: the single celled organism. He immediately bought up half of the collection. He then tore up his prepared speech, locked himself in his hotel room, ordered cigars, beer and sausages from room service, and emerged two days later to deliver an address that some consider to be the greatest in the history of natural science. In it he laid the foundation for his next great work, Die Klavierischräthsel (Mystery of the Pianolarians.) ‹ 44 ›

Ernst Haeckel photographed in 1867

A Haeckel sketch of a radiolarian

Pictured: a variety of types of pianolarian, including rare, nonradial variety, below

Above: A common radiolarian

Dream Wheel, Western Pianista, c. 1857

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Gallery view of a recreation of a typical Pianista Mandala, based on Haeckel’s early research. (Photo courtesy Museum Für Naturkund, Berlin.) ‹ 46 ›

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Calendars and Sundials The Pianistas had very sophisticated systems for keeping track of the time of day and the days of the year. Sun Calendars also know as Calendar Wheels were intricately engineered and elaborately decorated, although very few survive today. Though their time-keeping function is lost to history, much has been discovered recently about how they function as calendars.

The calendar had 88 days in each of four seasons, with a 3-day festival at the end of each season (one for the moon, sun and earth.) One day each year was set aside to celebrate a festival marking the New Year (generally held during the summer months.) ‚ 48 ›

The days in this calendar astonishingly add up to the 365 days that we are used to— 88 (keys) x 4 (seasons) + 13 (4 seasons x 3 festival days + 1 annual new year festival) = 365 The number of days in each season itself began as a visual symbol for the four seasons. Originally the symbol O O represented the four seasons. OO O Over time the individual symbols began to touch O O O and the number as we know it began to emerge. (Since the Pianistas had no written language, and no knowledge of standard numbering systems, this numerical coincidence is all-the-more astounding.) A typical arrangement (pictured to the left) was 88 keys arranged in circle, with 13 felt hammers in the middle, representing (as previously mentioned) the three festival days for each of the four seasons and one symbol in the middle to represent the new year’s feast day. When these calendars were created is not precisely known, but descriptions of evidence that has since been destroyed suggests that they may have been discovered as early as 1750, coinciding with the arrival of pianofortes from Europe. Recent research, however, indicates that they were probably not prevalent until the early-to-mid 1800’s. These dates are significant in that pianos in colonial times had only 72 keys, with keyboards of 84 keys arriving in the early 19th century. This would anticipate the keyboard arrangement of 88 keys (currently the standard) by a hundred years, and suggest a Pianista influence on modern piano development. Note: The term leap year actually came from the Pianista tradition that occurred every four years (as part of harvest festival) whereby a member of the tribe, in a zealous frenzy, would hurl himself into the nearest chasm to sacrifice him- or herself to the god of the harvest. (Often jumping off a medium-sized rock and getting some minor injury would suffice, except in time of famine.)

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Totems and Statuary

Like other native peoples -- most notably the various tribes of the Northwest Coast of the U.S. and Canada -- the Pianistas created large-scale figures representing spirits or ancestors that would be used in special ceremonies or put outside the village to protect its inhabitants. In contrast to tribes such as the Tlingit and Kwakiutl, who carved their totem poles from large trees, the Pianistas had to cobble theirs together from a variety of wooden parts A Pianista village with totem figures (at right) in various of the piano framework, states of collapse. wire, and bits of hardware. Later, as better tools became readily available, parts of the cast iron harp were used, as in this example. This resulted in the unique patchwork style and dangerously top-heavy construction for which they have become famous. Seemingly random but highly symbolic, the pieces of these complex constructions represented (to members of the tribe) the idea of individuals being held together by the common beliefs of a society.

Remants of Bird Warrior figure, reconstructed; date unknown.

Unfortunately not many examples of these large totems remain. Poor construction and the tendency of members of the tribe to burn sculpture for fuel contributed to their unfortunate scarcity. (The charred surface of Hawk Totem (pictured at right) was originally attributed to this phenomenon, but it has recently been found to be the result of a fire that took place in the basement of the Chicago Field Museum in 1914, caused by a docent who fell asleep smoking a cigarette.) ‚ 50 ›

A photographic studio card from 1896, featuring Hawk Totem, found at junk shop in Evanston, Illinois in 1975 by George Murphy, a part-time worker at the Chicago Field Museum.

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Ceremonial Effigies Examples of the elaborate ceremonial costumes and battle armor of the Pianistas have been found in regions throughout North America, from the Eastern woodlands to the Plains and as far north as Southwestern Canada. These include a variety of masks and headdresses, breastplates and body armor, necklaces, bracelets and other jewelry. Worn in conjunction with ceremonial objects like dance fans, talking sticks, and weapons, dancers would perform for hours on end during special feast days and before battle. When not in use, these objects were hung up in shelters on makeshift hangers, or piled up in crude boxes. Over time however, these simple clotheshorse structures evolved into figurative effigies onto which the costumes, objects and weapons were hung. The more powerful (or wealthy) shamans, warriors and dancers commissioned very elaborate mannequins for their costumes. These were often posed and sculpted to closely resemble the physical likeness of their owners. It was thought that these figures contained the spirit and power of those who wore the armor or costume, or used the weapons in battle.

Detail of Ceremonial Breastplate, with War Skirt, Dance Fan and Eagle Fetish

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When dressed up and outfitted with weapons, these figures could appear quite menacing. In fact, research shows that these effigies were often placed in the area surrounding the village in times of war to scare off intruders. Occasionally they were placed outside a warrior’s domicile to keep other villagers away in times of sickness, exhaustion or drunkenness.

Standing Figure with Ceremonial Costume {Northern Pianista, ca. 1893}

A. Bad Medicine Mask; B. War Club; C. Breastplate; D. Ceremonial Necklace; E. Dance Fan; F. War Skirt; G. Removable Eagle Fetish ‚ 53 ›

The Pianista Observatorium and Celestial Navigation

One of the most unusual artifacts of this enigmatic culture found by anthropologists is displayed at right: The Pianista Observatorium. It is one of a very few that have survived the ravages of time, appearing in a number of locations across the Eastern United States. From what has been discovered, it appears that this structure was central to the Pianistas ceremonial life. Though Photograph of The Pianista used as a place of meditation and special Observatorium, taken in 1913, location ceremony, its primary function was as unknown. an observatory for celestial phenomena, much like Mayan structures. Circular apertures in the roof structure allowed shamans and other ceremonial participants to view constellations in the night sky at certain times of the year as well as the equinox sunrise. The circular constellations, that make up the walls of the Observatorium represent the various corresponding star configurations, and are grouped in frames known as ladders (for their shape) that could be removed and used individually as a sort of map for celestial navigation. It is said that the Pianistas believed that these circular forms directed positive energy from the universe to those who stood in the structure, and were thought of as “windows for looking within.” (For the gallery installation at right, the constellations representing the night sky are distributed around the walls of the gallery, and can be viewed by standing in the middle of the structure and looking out at a certain angle.) Ladder, made up of individual constellations

The Observatorium is constructed to be a temporary structure: members of the ceremonial party would carry the parts to a remote location away from the village, often miles away. However, the parts are so numerous, the construction so complicated, and materials either extremely heavy or sharp, that it is believed that this particular example was only constructed once. Researchers are very fortunate to have this version of the Observatorium; it was recently discovered in the basement of the Harvard Museum of Natural History in twenty-five crates marked “DE-ACQUISITIONED,” which were being used as a staging area for their recent renovations. ‹ 54 ›

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Reconstruction of The Pianista Mountain Observatorium, (on display in the Mary Smith Gallery, at Appalachian State University, January, 2011) remnants of which were found outside of Boone, North Carolina, 2003. Photo courtesy Watuga Historical Society.

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Two sketches of apparently different versions of what has come to be known as the Pianista Eastern Woodland Observatorium. Above, from the field books of noted Pianista scholar and archivist Nathanial Greenville, 1910. At left, a drawing in the archives of the Topeka Museum of Art and Culture, artist unknown.

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Replica of The Pianista Eastern Woodland Observatorium, (original on display at the Ripley Odditorium, Orlando, Florida) based on Greenville’s sketches and eye-witness accounts gathered during the WPA interviews with locals in Keene, New York, 1936. Above: upward view from inside the Observatorium. It is said to have been designed to view the phases of the moon, as well as a smoke hole during winter use.

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Shaman Cart/ Piano Elixir Wagon

Pictured below is one of the few surviving examples of a Pianista Shaman’s cart. Revered men and women from the tribe would sometimes take on the role of spiritual healers, called in to visit someone suffering from sickness or mental distress. The culture believed strongly in the healing power of music, and it was thought that the objects made from the piano could provide healing energy. Although there are no written records, the shaman would travel to the affected person’s dwelling and perform ceremonial music and dances with masks and other objects. Some of these individuals would travel long distances and so developed wheeled vehicles, inspired from some of the abandoned wagons out on the frontier. These vehicles would allow them to carry all they needed, from ceremonial items to weapons, tools and utensils, and spare parts. Part of the healing ceremony was the use of what was known as piano spirits: a strong tea-like liquid created from stewing certain parts of the piano in vats of water, and boiled down into an elixir. The process was quite complex, using different combinations of specific materials (ivory for strengthening bones, copper to settle the nerves, iron for cleansing the blood, etc.) to produce the desired effect. The liquid was highly sought after and, from some contemporary accounts, quite effective. Pianista Shaman’s Cart, displayed with what is thought to be a typical collection of ceremonial objects, including masks, fetish items, practical utensils and tools for travel, and weapons

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Unfortunately, in the late nineteenth century, charlatans commandeered the process of making this piano extract as products like snake oil and other miracle nostrums became all the rage. They made outrageous claims and connected the healing power of their products to a distorted understanding of the native culture. The process for making the elixir for mass consumption was shoddy at best; often they would take sweepings from piano factories or from pianos found in trash heaps without any care for what parts went in. Not only did these concoctions not work, they were downright dangerous: although often mostly made of coffee and whiskey, they contained trace amounts of lead, arsenic, and often bacteria and worse. One of these con artists, Clark Stanley, known for his particularly outlandish selling style, used this very wagon to sell his concoction, and it was important to keep some Pianistamade weapons at the ready for the angry mob whose family members may have been killed by his product. Records from the period suggest that the vehicle was also used as a small hearse on occasion. Left: detail of label of Dr. Abbott’s Pianista Elixir. Claims of having an actual medical degree among the purveyors of “Authentic Pianista Healing Oils” were often exaggerated. Above: Clark Stanley’s version of the concoction. In one contemporary account, which illustrates Stanley’s vigor as a salesman, one man, who had gone blind after using the product was talked into buying some more to cure his blindness.

The Pianista War Canoe and Edward Curtis

Pictured at right is a rare example of the boat-building genius of the Pianistas. This version is said to have been found in a North West coastal village of Washington State in 1898, and is pictured in the Native Peoples Wing of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, in Seattle. (There is some dispute among experts, because some records indicate that it was originally in the collection of the Chicago Field Museum, shortly before the turn-of-thecentury.) Since its addition to the museum’s collection, it has been referred to as The Pianista War Canoe, although it was probably used as a fishing boat, especially given the peace-loving nature of the Pianistas. It is of particular interest because it was discovered by photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis during a visit to the Burke in 1927.

Thought to be one of the only original Edward Curtis photogravures of the Pianista War Canoe re-enactment in 1928. This copy was found in a old trunk at a water front flea market in Chicago, in 1961, along with some others.

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Thought to be either an original Pianista War Canoe, or a replica built to the 1928 reenactment, the vessel is picture here at the Burke Museum in Seattle, along with other examples of Pacific Northwest Coast Indian artifacts, including the Tlingit, Haida, and the Kwakwaka’wakw. An example of the Pianista Waterland Ceremony Costume thought to be used in the 1928 reenactment is seen near the center in the background.

Curtis had just finished work on the last of his extensively researched 20 volume series of books entitled The North American Indian, begun in 1906, which documented, in detailed written description and over 40,000 photographs, the culture of nearly all of the Native American tribes throughout the continent. Upon seeing the craft, he was enthralled, and, thinking there was a tribe had not yet documented1, he asked the docents to give him all the information they had on their culture. They showed him the other rare Pianista artifact in their collection, the Waterland Ceremony Headdress and Costume (replica pictured at right, in the center and slightly behind), They also knew of one older, local gentleman who claimed to be a descendant of the tribe, living in a fishing shack on the coast. Curtis contacted the man, borrowed the canoe and costume from the museum, and staged a reenactment of the Waterland Ceremony on Totten Inlet, just outside the city. (An image of one of the few remaining photographs is displayed to the left.) Although he shot hundreds of photographs, wrote several essays based on interviews, and even began production of Volume XXI of his epic series, the book on the Pianistas was never published, and most all of the documentation was lost when he died in relative obscurity in 1952. 1. It has long been established by historians that the Pianistas are not part of any Native American ancestry, but the similarity to tribes he had been studying would have justified his confusion of the subtle differences in cultures, especially at that time.

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Clockwise from left: Music of the Spheres, Dreaming Loon, Duck Head Club Mask Above: Pianista Sun Goddess, Spoked-Eye Owl, Banshee Mask


"Believe It Or Not"

Showcasing bizarre events, weird objects, strange places and exotic people, Robert Ripley started Believe It Or Not as a cartoon in 1918 and eventually turned it into a book, a radio and TV show and a series of museums. He opened his first Odditorium in Chicago during the World’s Fair, which opened on May 27, 1933. At the World’s Fair exhibit, he had three separate rooms. In one he displayed the artifacts that he had gained from the travels to 201 countries: the shrunken heads from Ecuador, the six-legged cow from Wisconsin. The second room was pure sideshow carnival: human oddities that typically could perform. There also was a separate admission price to go backstage to the third room and see his most recent acquisition: a collection of masks and other artifacts from a little known tribe known as the “Pianistas.” It was the first time that many people had heard of this culture and they lined up for hours to pay 50 cents to see the exhibit. Never one to pass up an opportunity for mystery, he told visitors not to touch the artifacts for fear of horrible consequences or a lingering curse. Sixteen years later to the day, on May 27, 1949, Ripley collapsed and died while taping the 13th episode of his TV show. Believe It Or Not. Left, one of Ripley’s favorite artifacts from the Pianista collection, a ceremonial mask he fondly referred to as “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer”. Far left, Robert Ripley in a publicity photo posing with a shrunken head, date unknown.

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Newspaper clipping featuring one of several “Believe-It-Or-Not!”cartoons that told the story of the “curious tribe” that made everything out of piano parts. Pictured are the Standing Figure with Ceremonial Costume, the Pianista Mountain Observatorium (both on display at the Ripley’s Odditorium in Orlando, Florida) and a head detail of Bird-Spirit-Man, which can be found at the museum’s Hollywood, California location.

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Above: 1907 Milton upright piano intact and dismantled. It is believed that the Pianistas were so resourceful with materials that one piano could last for several years. Right: In 1979, researchers at the Pianista Study Center in Boulder, CO concluded, after extensive carbon dating, fiber tracing, and DNA sampling, that all of the objects at right came from a single, very similar piano of earlier vintage.

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Recent Discoveries Each year, dozens of new artifacts related to the Pianista culture are discovered across North America. Some are found as part of archaeological digs; some are discovered in antique shops and roadside curio shacks. Others occasionally emerge from deep storage in the natural history holdings of major museums. Recent findings include masks, weapons and other ceremonial objects, photographs, other documentation and at least one set of false teeth. As this catalog went to print, archaeologists in the Midwest have discovered the remnants of large scale structures and what appear to be ceremonial wagons of some sort. As they are studied and documented, these exciting new finds will help us shed light on the history, traditions and wisdom of this unique culture. Perhaps we can learn something from a people who, misunderstood and occasionally attacked, steadfastly followed their vision, despite limited resources, physical injury and a certain lack of common sense.

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Artifacts, photographs, and documentation continue to be discovered each year.

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Left: Sculptors at the Vermont Studio Center studied sketches and written first-hand accounts to construct a replica of the King Bird Warrior from a single baby grand piano in 2011. Above: From those same notes they re-enacted the Sculpture Cremation Ceremony and saved the remains. It is thought that over ninety percent of Pianista artifacts were purposely destroyed in this way by shamans or members of the tribe. The rest may have fallen apart with the weather. ‚ 73 ›

Re-enactments, Replicas and Forgeries There has been a history of re-enacting aspects of Pianista culture that dates back to before the turn of the last century. As part of his well-known Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which ran from 1883 to 1916, frontiersman, war hero and entertainer Buffalo Bill would have his troupe perform re-enactments of many of the several Pianista ceremonies, beginning at his encampment outside the fairgrounds of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. These would often involve music and dance as the ingenuity of the construction and sound of the instruments created by the tribe fascinated audiences. Because there were no known descendants New York Daily Journal headline from 1888 advertising of the tribe by that time, he Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, with special cermonial re-enactment hired members of other tribes using Pianista artifacts. or recent immigrants, mostly Jewish and Italian, for the “ethnic look” of native peoples. He brought several of the participants on his tour of Europe in 1902 (including a museum docent from the Chicago Field Museum named Alfonso Veneto), where they had a fourteen week run, including a performance for the future King George V. Re-enactments performed by various groups continued sporadically, gaining popularity in the 1950’s, until falling out of favor because of political correct attitudes in the 1990’s. In recent years however, there has been resurgence in interest in the Pianista culture. As such, “replicas” and outright forgeries are cropping up in museum collections, and objects that for years had been attributed to the tribe have been identified as fakes by experts. ‹ 74 ›

Recent interest in the culture of the Pianistas has lead to a resurgence in the re-enactment of traditional ceremonies, such as this Ceremonial Sculpture Burning.

Clockwise from above: Reenactor wearing a replica of a Pianista Waterland Ceremony Headdress and costume, date and location unknown; recent replica of Pianista War Canoe based on Edward Curtis film footage, commisioned by the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology ; Bucktooth and Elephant masks from the Danish Museum of Natural History turned out to be made by local art students; copper knuckle replica based on original, Metropolitan Museum, NY; recreation of Sculpture Burning Ceremony, Johnson, VT, 2011; totem figure recently found to be a fake, at the Victoria National Museum, Vancouver; pianolarian replicas (de-authenticated by scholars) from the Peabody Museum; ceremonial dance reenactment, 2008.

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Alternative Theories

Despite extensive physical evidence, in the form of ceremonial objects, weapons and other items, written accounts, field sketches and notes from various sources found in numerous geographical locations across North America over the last one-hundred years, there exists, in certain segments of the anthropological community, some doubt as to the very existence of the Pianistas as a legitimate tribe. This debate has been going on since the majority of the artifacts were discovered in the late 1890’s. The detractors have pointed to the very magnitude and variety of artifacts and the enormous geographical spread of the locations of their discovery. Most North American tribes settled in particular regions and, although some were sporadically nomadic (or later forced to move because of government policies) and would typically live in areas no larger than several hundred miles in any directions. Accounts of the activities of the Pianistas have been documented from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, as far south as Northern Mexico and as far north as Canada, in terrain as diverse as desert, shoreline and mountain. This has lead some skeptics to wonder why a culture so widely spread geographically, has no surviving members, leaving no one who could pass on an oral history or contribute a personal account. The two most quoted alternative theories are that pockets of various Native American tribes created the artifacts from discarded parts outside of towns during Westward Expansion or that the masks, weapons, and other objects were made by regional folk artists. To some scholars, confirmation of one widely held theory came to light with the recent discovery of a hand-written journal by a little known and enigmatic figure in the history of the Pianistas, one Alfonzo Renato Veneto, an Italian immigrant who arrived somewhere near the turn of the century. Veneto, a piano-tuner by trade, was said to have begun making things out of piano parts for his fellow workers at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where he worked as a laborer. He continued throughout his life, until his death in 1959. In the journal, Veneto, in the last year of his life, seems to claim to have made the artifacts that had been on display at the Chicago Field Museum as early as 1891 (according to some sources.) The journal, at times rambling and nearly illegible, moves from various points in Veneto’s life, and often seems to be influenced by the author’s age and perhaps, as some psychologists and handwriting analysts have theorized, some sort of mental illness. ‹ 76 ›

To most Pianista experts however, it seems unlikely that one person, much less a possibly disturbed and isolated immigrant folk artist, could have created a world of this magnitude and produced the variety, scale, and extraordinary number of artifacts that have been discovered over the last century. Still, these alternative theories have their champions in the academic community, and so must be examined with and open mind and scientific rigor.

Many recently discovered artifacts are determined to be replicas or their origins are in question. ‚ 77 ›

Alfonzo Renato Veneto

Over the past one hundred years, numerous objects believed to be Pianista artifacts have turned out to be made by others. These “copy-cat” artists were often junk men or isolated folk artists, and most had seen Pianista ceremonial objects in person or in reproductions.

Object attributed to Veneto, featuring the “split-face” motif that experts say may indicate schizophrenia.

One of the more well-known and enigmatic figures in the history of the Pianistas, is one Alfonzo Renato Veneto, an Italian immigrant who arrived sometime before the turn of the century, and lived much of his life in Chicago. Veneto, a piano-tuner by trade, had a colorful background as, among other things, a gondola pilot, railroad worker, snake-oil salesman, and a bit actor in early Hollywood westerns. He was known to have made at least fifty objects in the Pianista style, several of which had been erroneously identified as authentic at the turn of the century. In a journal found just recently, and written in the year leading up to his death in 1959, Veneto claims to be “the Last of the Pianistas” and to have made several of the artifacts that had been on display at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History as early as 1891. In a rambling and mostly incoherent retelling, he tells his family history, his voyage to America; his work at the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893; he goes on to tell of how he began making objects out of piano parts, how they were discovered and thought to be from native origins and how they were placed in museum collections. He aludes to working with The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and how his work traveled with “Mr. Cody’s Side Show” and was shown to hundreds of people, including the crown heads of Europe.

Chest found in a hidden room in the basement of the Chicago Field Museum, during a recent renovation. It is full of piano parts, and some artifacts that look like Pianista ceremonial objects. It has the initials “A.R.V.” carved into the lid.

What is known for sure is that he (or someone with a similar name) is on record for having worked at the Chicago Field Museum just after the Columbia Exposition of 1893. It is likely that Veneto was just a prolific, copycat artist with access to one of the largest and varied Pianista collections in America. Still, some anthropologists believe he is responsible for many more of the artifacts that have been attributed to the Pianistas, and at least one expert believes he may be the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax. For now, without further evidence, the debate continues. ‹ 78 ›

Studio photograph of Alfonzo Renato Veneto, date unknown ‹ 79 ›

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Journal written by Veneto, and memorabilia found at in an old tin box at waterfront flea market in Chicago in the summer of 2012. In his mostly illegible entries, he recalls events in his life and claims to the “the Last of the Pianistas.” Experts are investigating his claims.

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The Last of the Pianistas

Depicting a Pianista shaman in full ceremonial regalia, and surrounded by an elaborate (and heavy) frame reminiscent of the Rococo Period, this fascinating and historically important work has been surrounded by controversy in recent years. Originally in the collection of the Chicago Field Museum, it had been attributed for many years to the painter, author and traveler George Catlin, who specialized in portraits of Native Americans. Purportedly acquired just after the museum’s founding in 1893, the painting hung for decades along with portraits of chiefs of numerous North American tribes, as well as among masks and other artifacts in the museum’s collection. When much of the museum’s Catlin collection went up for sale in 2004, the piece was purchased by a descendent of Chicago piano manufacturer Hampton L. Story. Frances Story Dubinski, who had been a donor to the museum since she received her inheritance as a young woman, bought the work for an undisclosed sum, narrowly outbidding a representative from the Catlin Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. When being installed at her palatial estate in Hyde Park, a Catlin expert she had hired found discrepancies in painting style, and noticed some strange writings on the back of the painting. Upon further research, it was declared a forgery, and legal battle ensued. At this writing the matter has yet to be settled.

Who may have painted this work is unclear. Experts are divided; most claim it was done by an amateur painter who was briefly employed by This photograph recently Catlin, near the time of this found in the Pianista Archives death. The most interesting in Wichita may offer new clues. theory, and one which has garnered some support in recent years, is that it was painted by one Anna Maria Veneto, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the turn Anna Maria Veneto of the century, who also happened to be the sister of folk artist and Chicago Field Museum docent Alfonzo Renato Veneto, famously known for his “copy cat” creations of Pianista artifacts, and (according to some contemporary anthropologists) the possible creator of scores of Pianista forgeries. In fact, the image of the figure in the painting is thought by some experts to be Veneto himself. ‹ 82 ›

Large painting The Last of the Pianistas, date unknown, artist unknown. Its cast-iron frame is said to weigh over three hundred pounds and has lead to several injuries during installation. ‚ 83 ›

Epilogue It’s not known where these new discoveries may lead. At the time of this writing, research continues at several Pianista Study Centers at universities across the country; at least two major position papers are being written at major institutions by separate research teams, defending opposing viewpoints about the history of the Pianista culture; Alfonzo Veneto’s journal is about to be released to the public; and “definitive” articles are said to be coming out in Smithsonian Magazine and Anthropology Today in the near future. Whether or not any of these new twists in the saga of the Pianistas turn out to be true, it is just another example of the complexity of a people and a phenomenon that remains full of wonder. The Pianistas were known for loving questions more than answers. The search for truth was more important than the discovery. In that spirit we can all look within ourselves, and out at the world, and wonder.

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All there is to know in this world cannot be known; things of beauty and confusion are what make us most alive. May the music of mystery follow you like a hungry dog..

~ traditional Pianista farewell ‚ 85 ›

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Michael Frassinelli is a sculptor, occasional musician and documentary filmmaker, art educator, collector and archivist, and the foremost authority on the culture of the mysterious people known as the Pianistas. Since 2003, he has been researching the history of this overlooked and misunderstood people, excavating and recreating artifacts, documenting anecdotal evidence and compiling various writings from a variety of sources. He is currently working on a full-length film documentary on the subject, as well as an updated and expanded hardcover edition of this catalog. Requests for information about upcoming events or acquiring artworks/artifacts can be sent to: More information can be found on the Pianistas and other artworks at: Copyright © 2013 Vertical Piano Press Printed in the USA

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The Legend of the Pianistas  

The Unbelievable History of a Curious People

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