From the Library: Pipes, Perforations and Pins

in Daily Programme

by Elrik Merlin on Monday, 7 December, 2009

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:

If you want to listen off-world

, simply click here.


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