Player Pianos: Pianolas & Reproducing Pianos

The subject of Player Pianos, originally triggered by the discussion of Conlon Nancarrow’s music in the previous post, has led me to be in contact with Rex Lawson at the Pianola Institute in the UK, an organisation dedicated to the preservation and performance of these fascinating machines.

It turns out Rex was a good friend on Nancarrow’s in the 1980’s and 90’s, and Nancarrow was in the midst of writing a concerto for him to perform, a task unfortunately interrupted by his death in 1997. Rex was kind enough to provide a lot of information and correct me on my descriptions of the capabilities of the various types of Player Piano.

What I call the pianola, the foot-operated player piano, generally used rolls that were not recorded by anyone, at least not in the sense we use the word “recorded” nowadays.… Normal pianola rolls were transcribed from the score by musical editors, at so many fractions of an inch per beat, and any reasonable pianolist will play them differently from anyone else.…

The pianos which use recorded rolls are generally known as “reproducing pianos”, and in those cases pianists sat down at recording pianos, and some means was used for transcribing their keystrokes on to roll. Rolls for the reproducing piano play at a preset speed, whereas those for the pianola were intended to be varied at every moment, otherwise the music sounds mechanical, which was never the intention.…

Regarding Conlon Nancarrow:

Conlon came along at a time when the player piano was already part of history, and he used secondhand Ampicos, which were designed for the subtle nuances of pianists like Rachmaninov, as a quick way of bringing his own music to life. I love his music, and I play it quite a lot in concerts, but his compositions are not at all subtle from the dynamic point of view, because his main concern was to contrast different contrapuntal voices, not to phrase melodic lines in a romantic way. They are certainly not at all difficult to play on a foot-pedalled pianola. One only needs to be able to create a few dynamic levels, and the rest looks after itself.

And, on the subject of the Nancarrow Concerto:

Conlon wrote most of a concerto for me to play as a result of our meeting. He never finished it, but a British composer, Paul Usher, took all the sketches and made them into “Nancarrow Concerto”, which I did with a group called Ensemble Modern in Germany a few years back. There are plans to perform it in the UK in a couple of years.

More information can be found on the website for the Pianola Institute.