The Modcott Piano Company in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood is a classic workshop, a big box filled with pianos of various shapes, sizes and vintages and in different stages of restoration.
Stop by any day of the week and you’ll see owner Sam Evans and his wife, Sarah, doing the meticulous work of bringing these beautiful instruments back to their former glory — stripping paint, removing and replacing strings, sanding and polishing surfaces, and rebuilding pianos piece by piece.
Every couple of weeks, the industrial space known as Modcott Pianos gets transformed into The Piano Fort — a makeshift performance venue created to inspire people’s love of music in the place where the tools of the trade are reborn.
The conversion from shop to concert space takes a full day. Current restoration projects are wrapped up and shoved into corners to make room for rows of chairs. Sparkly lights are turned on. And the stage, which is built on top of four grand pianos, is cleared off and made ready for the musicians to arrive. Evans tries to group several shows over one weekend.
A stage made of pianos may seem to be the perfect centerpiece for a place dubbed The Piano Fort, but Evans insists it was born out of necessity more than design. “It wasn’t that we were trying to be something crazy and weird,” he explains. “We just didn’t have the money for all the materials we needed to build a stage. So we took what materials we had on hand — which was pianos — and used them to construct a good part of the stage.”
All of the pianos are still working, Evans adds, although they are still restoration projects in progress. “They are all safe and padded up and blanketed underneath. Hopefully somebody will be playing them again someday.”
Although he initially conceived of The Piano Fort as a “musical playground” for local musicians, Evans says the space has increasingly become a stop-off for traveling acts, such as free jazz pianist Burton Greene, who performed at The Piano Fort in April.
Evans says The Piano Fort’s shows follow the model of a house concert, a DIY-style arrangement which has become an increasingly popular alternative for musicians looking to perform and connect with listeners outside of the traditional club and concert circuit. Like house concerts, The Piano Fort’s events are usually publicized via social media or word of mouth, donations are accepted in lieu of a cover charge, refreshments are bring-your-own, and the focus is on making the event feel more like a community gathering than a concert. Evans donates the space for the events. If there is money made, it goes to the musicians.
Although the concerts provide some marketing exposure for his restoration business, Evans says they are really a labor of love and a way to support the local music scene.
“The shows are really a pleasure to do,” says Evans. “They are a lot of work and sometimes they distract from the money side of the business. But I believe part of the job of a piano shop is to inspire people’s love for music — playing music and being a part of music.”
To learn more about the Modcott Piano Company, watch our Oregon Art Beat story.