From the Library: Pipes, Perforations and Pins

In today’s pro­gramme we’ll hear a wide selec­tion of Vic­to­ri­an and Edwar­dian mechan­i­cal instru­ments, this time fea­tur­ing the Pianola and the Repro­duc­ing Piano.
Often con­fused, the Pianola is quite dif­fer­ent from the Repro­duc­ing Piano and is not even tru­ly the stuff of “play­er pianos” in saloons in cow­boy movies, though they all use a “piano roll” to pro­vide the notes. In the case of the Repro­duc­ing Piano, the roll con­tains not only the notes but all the tem­po, expres­sion and oth­er aspects of an actu­al per­for­mance. The big sell­ing point of these sys­tems, there­fore, was to get famous per­form­ers and com­posers to per­form their works, which could then be flaw­less­ly repro­duced at home — and we’ll hear some such per­for­mances today, from one hun­dred years of the archives of the Welte-Mignon Com­pa­ny.
The Pianola, on the oth­er hand, began life as a “cab­i­net play­er” – a box on cas­tors that you wheeled up to a con­ven­tion­al piano and locked into place so that its felt-cov­ered actu­a­tors can press the keys. It’s pow­ered by ped­als, which dri­ve the roll and also force air through the holes in the roll to sound the notes. By chang­ing the pres­sure on the ped­als (eg by stamp­ing on them) you can also change the loud­ness of the notes – in oth­er words, give the per­for­mance dynam­ics – that can be applied to dif­fer­ent parts of the range. There’s also a tem­po slid­er – and even tech­nol­o­gy that picks out the top line auto­mat­i­cal­ly.
This is all rather impor­tant, because the piano roll for a Pianola con­tains only the notes – the play­er deter­mines the tem­po and expres­sion (in a solo per­for­mance, for exam­ple, includ­ing visu­al cues print­ed or writ­ten on the roll). Thus a Pianola per­for­mance actu­al­ly is a per­for­mance, and not a play­back. Yes, the notes are pro­vid­ed, but the expres­sion is man­u­al­ly applied.
Pianola rolls were not cre­at­ed by play­ing the instru­ment and record­ing what the per­former did, as in the case of the Repro­duc­ing Piano. Instead, they were cre­at­ed sim­ply from the score. Imag­ine a MIDI sequence cre­at­ed in step-time with no veloc­i­ty infor­ma­tion and you get the idea.
Most peo­ple couldn’t be both­ered to learn the sub­tle nuances of Pianola per­for­mance, how­ev­er, and sim­ply ped­alled away, giv­ing the instru­ments a rather life­less, mechan­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion which was entire­ly unde­served. Ulti­mate­ly, mech­a­nisms were built into (usu­al­ly upright) pianos – and hence the play­er pianos in the bars depict­ed in the cow­boy movies afore­men­tioned.

How­ev­er, today we’ll hear per­for­mances of Aeo­lian Com­pa­ny rolls played by one of Britain’s few mod­ern vir­tu­osos of the instru­ment — Rex Law­son — and they include some mod­ern com­po­si­tions.

Indeed, the Pianola/Player Piano is called for in one of the most exu­ber­ant avant-garde pieces of the 1920s, George Antheil’s Bal­let mecanique, which (at least in one ver­sion) is scored for 16 of them syn­chro­nised togeth­er (and impos­si­ble at the time). We won’t be hear­ing Bal­let mecanique today, but it might just pos­si­bly turn up on the Radio Riel Steam­punk stream at some point.

To find out more about the Pianloa — and buy some record­ings — please vis­it the Pianola Insti­tute web site.
In addi­tion to the above instru­ments, we’ll be hear­ing a wide selec­tion of oth­er instru­ments of the peri­od includ­ing fair­ground “Steam organs” (where a steam engine was used to pro­vide the air pres­sure), street organs (includ­ing some mod­ern music for them) and bar­rel pianos, not to men­tion the mighty 3‑disc Sym­pho­nion. We’ll also hear Pro­fes­sor Arm­chair’s con­tem­po­rary music on, inspired by these instru­ments, and we’ll add a dash of Vic­to­ri­an dance tunes from Strauss and oth­ers, and some car­ols to com­plete the peri­od image. Enjoy!

From the Library is pro­duced in con­junc­tion with the Alexan­dri­an Free Library Con­sor­tium, and today’s pro­gramme is pre­sent­ed by Elrik Mer­lin. For more about the work of the Con­sor­tium, please click here. You can lis­ten to today’s pro­gramme on our Main Stream as fol­lows:

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Radio Riel Main Stream play­ing on your par­cel, please set the media music URL to:

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