Player Piano Rolls: Listening to History
When we tune in to All Classical, we barely pause to consider that, with the exception of live-streaming concerts, most of the music we hear has been recorded. Thanks to the innovations of recording technology from the twentieth- and twenty-first century, we can hear musical moments captured and preserved in time. Performance before wax cylinders, tapes, or CDs is frustratingly forever out of our hearing range, but early recordings from the 1900s can tell us a lot about what and how musicians played. What did performance sound like 100 years ago? And what can we learn from it?
On Friday, June 19, 2016 Stanford researcher Kumaran Arul addressed a unique perspective to these questions in a lecture titled “Player Piano Rolls.” This event was part of the larger Portland Piano International Summer Festival, an annual week-long event at Lewis & Clark College. During the course of the festival, musicians—including scholars, performing artists, composers, and teachers—attended a variety of lectures, workshops, and concerts. The festival’s focus this year is “The Golden Age of Piano,” which “[pays] tribute to… the period between 1870 and 1930.”
Arul’s lecture discussed the importance of player piano rolls during the Golden Age and emphasized how we can learn about piano performance practice of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. But first, what were these rolls, and what did they do? Player piano rolls are the sheet music equivalent for the player piano, an instrument that in its most basic form functions like a music box in the size and shape of a piano, producing music mechanically. A person places a roll inside the instrument and sits on a bench to operate pedals, which pump air to power the interior pneumatics. As the roll unfurls, air passes through tiny, carefully placed holes in the paper to activate individual notes on the piano. The person does not need to touch the keys; instead, the player piano “reads” the roll and plays the notes on its own.
The player piano rolls that most fascinate Arul are those that have actually recorded pianists’ performances. The reproducing piano is a more technically advanced version of the basic player piano and recorded the notes (and in some cases, the dynamics and shadings) of a piano performance by marking the activated keys on a blank roll inside the piano. The Welte Company, located in southern Germany, manufactured instruments to record pianists as early as 1905: for example, distinguished musician Carl Reinecke playing Beethoven’s Ecossaise in E-flat.
What is so important about piano rolls today? Rolls, according to Arul, are a “goldmine” for historic discovery and explanation regarding piano performance practice. They have recorded high-quality and nuanced piano performances when the gramophone, still in its early years, could only capture fuzzy, vague acoustic sounds. Many famous composers from around the world played their own works for the reproducing piano: Edvard Grieg, 1906 in Leipzig; Alexander Scriabin, 1910 in Moscow; Gabriel Fauré, c. 1913 in Paris; Nikolai Medtner, c. 1925 in New York.
In these recordings, rolls reveal historic trends in performance style and technique. Arul points out that we can hear improvisational liberties in contrast to today’s strict fidelity to a musical text: in a “wonderfully creative moment,” Rachmaninoff takes an inventive spin on Chopin’s jaunty Minute Waltz.* We can also hear how composers played (and arranged) their own compositions: consider George Gershwin’s arrangement of his Rhapsody in Blue, originally scored for solo piano and jazz band. We can even get insight into musicians who lived before the player piano’s time by listening to recordings of their students; consider Stavenhagen playing Hungarian Rhapsody, composed by his teacher Franz Liszt.
Beyond the music itself, the roll production process can also teach us about evolving recording practices. Much like audio recordings today, player piano rolls were editable, meaning that notes could be added or subtracted at the performer’s or editor’s will. On the earliest recordings, like the Reinecke mentioned earlier, the roll was left untouched, mistakes and all. However, as the technology improved, editors were able to go back and change the notes recorded on the paper, erasing a note here, adding a note there. Accomplished player Paderewski famously requested of roll editors, “I do not play these passages evenly, can you even them out for me?” Performers increasingly desired perfection and precision over improvisational whims, perhaps because recordings could transform ephemeral moments into permanent and physical objects.
These insights extend beyond the realm of player piano rolls. Whenever we listen to a tape, record, CD, radio or internet stream, we hear music from the past that is encoded with a unique historical context. The next time you listen to recorded music, whether from 1906 or 2016, imagine the performance and recording process… and how will it compare to recordings in 2116, 100 years from now?
*I was unable to find the recording that Arul played during the lecture, so please note that this particular recording was done live for the gramophone and is not a piano roll. We can hope that Rachmaninoff performed similarly for the reproducing piano.
The Portland Piano International Summer Festival is an annual event in Portland, OR.
Kumaran Arul is currently at Stanford University, where he and other researchers are working on the Player Piano Project to study the player piano and its connection to performance history.