Hands-on v. Hands-off

The distinction Rex Lawson made in the previous post between Pianolas and Recording Pianos is an interesting one, in terms of how they fit (or don’t fit) into the project which been hinting at recently.

This project is provisionally organised along a division between what I am characterising as hand-crafted or hands-on and hands-off material. I’ve been explaining it as follows:

Hands-on: those people producing material using primarily hands-on methods. I’m thinking here of things like live-coding, circuit-bending, etc.

Hands-off: those producing material with self-running systems with only minimal human intervention beyond the initial setting up of the system.

I see this as the work being split into two types, one for “knob twiddlers,” and the other for the more minimally-inclined worker. In both cases a particular focus could be generative software like Supercollider, which allows for both types of activity.

Hands-on/hands-off is obviously something of an artificial distinction – people don’t really restrict themselves to one or the other, but this event is designed to investigate the various options around these different types of work, and to see what kind of productive exchanges you can get when you focus on and contrast these particular aspects of production.

I’m also trying to avoid any forcing of the material into categories like music, noise, sound, visual art, architecture, etc. The principles being dealt with here cross over many disciplines and forms, so I want to leave this as open as possible and let the artists create the distinction with their work.

Returning to the Player Pianos, and Rex’s distinction that the rolls for Pianolas are edited versions of the original musical scores, while rolls for Recording Pianos are created by a machine translating the key presses of a particular pianist into slots on the paper. So, in former case, you have this abstraction which is the musical score, being translated into a new medium of the roll, but essentially they are unchanged in their content. From thence the Pianolist (the player of the Pianola) interprets the playing of the roll using the various means available on the Pianola (speed, tone, strength, etc.). In the latter case, you have the reality of the player’s movements being the players’ realisation of the abstraction of the score, translated into slots on the roll, the idea being that these rolls are then played as-is, without intervention on the part of a Pianolist. In this case at the time of performance you have what aims to be a reproduction, whereas in the former you have an entirely original performance.

In terms of my project, I want to pay attention to this interesting slippage through the roll of the human hand in the process, and more importantly at what stage in the process the hand enters and leaves. For the hands-on work the hand is ever-present to a greater extent, by definition; for the hands-off work, the hand has done it’s work beforehand (as it were) in the preparation, which then almost has a life of its own once it is performed (or performs itself, you could say I suppose).

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.