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Dead medium: the Player Piano; the Pianola; Reproducing Pianos; Reproducing Rolls
From: (Eleanor J. Barnes)

Dear Bruce,

I just looked through the listings so far for Dead Media Working Notes and noticed there seemed to be nothing about Player Pianos.

I was listening last night to a CD of George Gershwin playing his compositions == derived not from tinny, crackly, bass-deficient 78s, but from piano rolls he made himself.* The album is called "Gershwin: The Piano Rolls" and the liner notes are copious on the technology and history of piano rolls as a means of transmitting music otherwise available only as sheet music.

It struck me that though today we usually think of the player piano (when we think of it at all) as a novelty instrument, it is really not an instrument for playing by a musician, but a playback device for *recorded music* == just as was the hand-cranked Victrola == hence it, and piano rolls, are a (now-dead) medium.

Here is my writeup of Player Pianos as derived from the liner notes of the CD I mentioned.




The Player Piano

Notes excerpted from the liner notes for the 1993 CD, "Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls."

The outside blurb:

"George Gershwin's virtuosic piano technique and ebullient style bring the Jazz Age to life in this digital recording of 12 of the composer's piano rolls. Rare tunes never before recorded in any form (((sic))) are joined with Gershwin's singular performance of 'Rhapsody in Blue,' all transferred from the original 1920s rolls to a contemporary concert grand piano. Using the Yamaha Disklavier, a computer-driven descendant of the player piano, Artis Wodehouse has captured note-for-note Gershwin's own arrangements of his music, in a landmark recording as entertaining as it is historic."

The liner notes:

"George Gershwin recalled that one of his first musical memories went back to the age of six:

'I stood outside a penny arcade listening to an automatic piano leaping through Rubinstein's Melody in F. The peculiar jumps in the music held me rooted. To this very day I can't hear the tune without picturing myself outside the arcade on 125th Street, standing there barefoot and in overalls, drinking it all in avidly.'

"The player piano was a central force in American musical life between 1900 and 1930. Referred to variously as automatic pianos, pianolas and reproducing pianos, players of all types were found not only in penny arcades, but in homes, concert halls, restaurants, saloons, stores; virtually anywhere music was heard. Player pianos are normal acoustic pianos except that an internal piano- playing mechanism works as a computer using air pressure instead of electrical energy. The paper piano rolls are the 'software' used to activate the notes to play. A punched hole in a paper piano roll causes a corresponding note to play as it goes across a 'reader'; a five-note chord has five perforations, and so on. Air pressure in player pianos is established by foot-pumping the bellows te exhaust the air. In later models, the bellows were motor-driven.

"Gershwin's second contact with a player piano was more sustained than the chance encounter in the penny arcade. At around the age of 10, he began teaching himself to play at the home of a friend who had a player piano. Slowly foot-pumping through the roll, the boy placed his fingers over the keys as they were depressed by the roll-playing mechanism. This method of learning was so successful that when a piano intended for brother Ira Gershwin was hoisted into the family's flat, Ira recalled that 'No sooner had the upright been lifted through the window of the front room than George sat down and played a popular tune of the day. I remember being particularly impressed by his left hand.'...

"Gershwin's keyboard skills led him to make piano rolls, beginning when he was a song-plugger and continuing through his early career as an accompanist to vaudevilians and as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway. Before the late twenties, only a player piano could compete with a live performance for sonic presence. The phonograph was still in its infancy, and the old 78 discs produced a thin, bass-weak sound. While Gershwin was growing up (he was born in 1898) player pianos and piano rolls became a huge, lucrative and lavish industry. Happily, Gershwin's roll making years trace the rise of the player piano; of the approximately 130 rolls he made, the first was issued in 1916 and the last in 1927.

"Unfortunately, improvements in the sound of the much less expensive phonograph and radio undermined the popularity and perceived affordability of player pianos. During the late 20's the once thriving roll industry declined, crashing decisively at the onset of the Depression in 1929. As with many other smart and successful musicians of the era, Gershwin went on to make disc recordings and to host his own radio program.

"Making piano rolls that were spin-offs of his other keyboard work was a relatively easy way for Gershwin to make some quick extra money. Pop piano rolls had to be made and released quickly because they capitalized on the popularity of tunes that had recently been released as sheet music. Intended either for singing or dancing, stereotyped formats and stock devices permeated the medium. Still, roll arrangers were always looking for new musical tricks to amaze and excite the prospective purchaser. One such trick was to overdub; many more notes could be encoded into a roll than a single pianist could lay down by hand. The result was a full, busy and exhilarating sound....

"Gershwin recorded two types of rolls. The first (his Perfection, Mel-O-Dee and Universal rolls) was designed for playback on player pianos equipped with levers, knobs and/or buttons that the player pianolist foot-pumping the roll could interactively manipulate to create an expressive performance. The pianolist could often see a dynamic line ranging from soft to loud printed on the roll and follow it to guide the interpretation. The second and more technologically sophisticated type of roll (Gershwin's Duo-Art and Welte rolls) were called reproducing rolls. These were intended for playback on instruments called reproducing pianos that could automatically execute dynamics....

"The last selection on this CD is Frank Milne's 2- roll arrangement of An American in Paris....

"The piano used to play the rolls for this recording [the CD] is a 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier grand piano. This instrument was chosen because its computer capability offered unprecedented opportunities to refine the performances. In addition, this particular Disklavier piano is a high-quality full-sized concert grand producing a richness of sound and dynamic range which until now has been unusual for piano rolls recorded for CD.

"...Disklaviers are fitted with a computer and optic sensors that record a hand-played performance on floppy disk. On playback from the disk, the Disklavier's keys move up and down like the old player piano.

"A rare 1911 88-note Pianola was used for this project for those of Gershwin's rolls requiring a pianolist's interpretive intervention. During the heyday of the player piano this comparable piano-playing device was also available for roll playback. A heavy, bulky machine, the Pianola is equipped with expression levers and felt-tipped fingers and can be rolled up to any piano. Its fingers are positioned over the keys, and a roll is inserted. Foot-pumping activates the roll to move the fingers; the pianolist can play with expression by skillful foot- pumping and manipulating the expression levers.

"When the 1911 Pianola operated by Artis Wodehouse played the rolls on the Disklavier, the Disklavier in turn recorded the same way it does any live pianist. The best takes of each roll captured on disk were then further edited to improve the interpretation. Finally, the 9-foot Disklavier was taken to the auditorium of the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City where it played Gershwin's rolls from a floppy disk for the microphone, as if Gershwin's ghost were present at the session.

"Gershwin's reproducing rolls were prepared quite differently. Using a piano roll reader, Richard Tonnesen of Custom Music Rolls converted the paper rolls into computer files which specified the location and length of each hole on the roll. Computer programmer Richard Brandle wrote a computer simulation of the reproducing pianos which translated the computer files into MIDI representing the notes, their duration and position in time and relative loudness as executed by the old reproducing pianos. The resulting performances could be played on any Disklavier from floppy disk. Placed in front of the recording microphone, the Disklavier concert grand then played Gershwin's reproducing rolls from floppy disks for the CD recording...."

Liner Notes by Artis Wodehouse