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MMD > Archives > October 1998 > 1998.10.11 > 02Prev  Next

Player Piano as Compositional Tool
By Dan Wilson, London

Re: 981009 MMDigest

Ed Gaida forwarded this message from Robert Heyes <>:

> My name is Robert Heyes and I am studying sound technology at the
> Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts in England. I would like to
> know about people who used the player piano as a compositional tool.
> I already know about Conlon Nancarrow but did anyone else use it in
> the same way.

Have a look at the life of Percy Grainger. He got interested in the
reproducing piano when asked to make some Duo-Art recordings early in
the 1910s and by 1919 was ruthlessly re-editing his own performances,
having mastered the theory of the Duo-Art dynamic system. He said his
later rolls represented him as he would like to play, rather than as
he did play. (Josef Hofmann also became adept at re-editing his own
rolls, possibly with Grainger prompting him how to do it.)

Towards the end of the 1920s Grainger began to take an interest in
electronically-generated music and remembered the player piano as a
possible means of instructing oscillators. He was really looking for
ways of creating an infinitely variable pitch and the Grainger Museum
in Melbourne has some experimental rolls with slots cut in them that
roam about over the keyboard. These have fallen apart and - at least
when I saw them in 1978 - couldn't be played.

Later, once PC was in semi-retirement in the 1940s, this idea developed
into a machine with rolled-up cardboard templates on which rollers bore,
connected to the shafts of variable capacitors. Part of one machine
survives in Melbourne and another one is at his house in White Plains
NJ, and it's obvious that Percy's handiwork wasn't really up to his
musical imagination. He used a Mellotone as a playback unit and there
are, I think, some tape recordings of this playing his "Free Music",
as he called it.

The Theremin was invented round about the same time but it needed a
human operator and, as with musical saws, there didn't seem to be any
easy way of driving one automatically from a machine.

It's rather sad that now, such endeavours are easily achieved with
computers and modern electronic instruments.

Robert might profitably get in touch with Rex Lawson in London who is
as well informed as anyone about present-day composition on the
player-piano. There's a bit going on in Holland I only know of
distantly. (I'm emailing him details direct.)

Dan Wilson, London

Key Words in Subject:  as, Compositional, Piano, Player, Tool

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