Bigger is not better, when it comes to 'reproducing' pianos!
Hello MMD readers, As a roll arranger (and Pianolist) for 51 years,
now, specializing in the creation of "virtuoso" 'reproducing' rolls,
I feel a need to comment on that Nimbus CD posting, in today's issue
of the Mechanical Music Digest.
The Musical Heritage Society gave me a free copy of the "played by
Hofmann" Nimbus CD to audition after I questioned their published
remarks (many lifted from the jacket notes, which are untrue, in many
places). One MHS reference to the Duo-Art "capturing 'fleeting
improvisations' by Josef Hofmann at the keyboard" is what prompted me
to write them, when these recordings were first released, in the past
I never played more than samples of several cuts, having the
original rolls and disliking both the modern 'reproducing' player's
handling of them, plus the recorded piano, which could have been due
to the microphone methods, the hammer voicing, or something else. The
album sounded "nasty and brittle" to me, with an aggressive nature to
the expression score. Moreover, there was a Nimbus text justification
for using the action shift (as the soft pedal) instead of the hammer
rail lift, which appears on the upright Duo-Art and most of the grand
_No rolls were ever scored for the 'action shift' soft pedal!_ Thus,
even if the piano weren't annoying to hear, the musical results would
have been flawed, for the soft pedal is used on many expression rolls
as a "safety net" for a rapid diminuendo, in its hammer travel
capacities (for players, so equipped). Moving the piano action,
horizontally, in the middle of such a passage, does little to allow the
pneumatic system to readjust to a lower playing level, which a hammer
rail lift can do with some creative arranging.
Many rolls have a 'seamless' feel for a diminuendo, when employing a
short use of the soft pedal in this fashion, thereby removing strain
on single valve player actions (which dominate the Duo-Art line). The
action shift changes tone, more than anything else; it's a different
musical tool, contrary to what the Nimbus hype claims.
I wrote an article about this "Bigger is not better" syndrome, and you
can access it here: http://www.wiscasset.net/artcraft/phony.htm This
1997 posting even links to the Earwitness Duo-Art site, so one could
compare my opinions with the claims on their Internet page, plus hear
what I call a "machine-gun" performance of 'Paderewski', which was the
audio clip, of that time. The concert grand Duo-Art (DR) for
Earwitness was a player action retrofit, and my text explains why
most of the D-series Steinway grands were sold off after the concert
tours, with their players removed. Schools and institutions didn't
mind buying a "converted" 9'6'" sized piano, which was the 9' Steinway
(or Weber) stretched to accommodate the player action.
The problem was the roll situation. Aeolian didn't want people to play
their commercial expression rolls on one of these pianos. Operated by
the hand levers, they were fine. Used with specially-edited rolls --
or ones _created for concert hall use_ (like my "Rhapsody in Blue, at
Tempo 100, not Tempo 60!) -- the results were obviously wonderful, in
a stage setting. There's a place on the Gershwin roll where a rolled
arpeggio, held down, becomes 7 or 8 notes at Intensity #1. This will
'fail' on the Duo-Art test roll for the home players!
The word "home" and "residence" appears again and again, in Aeolian
texts, beginning in the late 1890s. Aeolian Grand organ/piano rolls,
up to my catalogue of 1924 and probably later, said that these were
being offered for a "home instrument", and so did the Duo-Art piano
promotions of the 1920s. The expression (intensity) stepping on the
Duo-Art was for an upright of up to approximately 54" in height, and
a grand piano up to the norm of 5'10" (which is 6'6" as a Steinway OR,
with the superb Weber FR weighing-in, just a bit shorter than that.)
My Steinway AR is almost 'too much' for the last 2-1/2 octaves in the
bass, no matter how much hammer voicing takes place, but I compensate
for this in my roll arrangements, since a pedal O is only a few feet
away in our perforating studio. A Steinway Duo-Art B or D is beyond
the pale, when using rolls from the Duo-Art catalogues.
When playing muted and boring "Milne medleys" of the 1930s, also
for the Ampico, the large instruments sound much better, but these
arrangements don't challenge the scope of the pianoforte and were
created after the era had ended. I recall hearing "Body and Soul"
on a British B (BP) pedal-electric Duo-Art, and thinking to myself,
"A Stroud grand would have performed this roll, just about the same,"
which translates into "Why waste the space in a room for a monster
piano, rendering 'cocktail lounge' music?" (The B as a Duo-Art was
around 8 feet in length, after all!)
Shortly before the Earwitness CD/radio series began, I was telephoned
by Frank Mazurco (I believe that's his name; it's in my records), then
the Vice President of Steinway, recently purchased by new owners,
formerly the Selmer organization, maker of band instruments. I brought
up the fact that you need a musician "monitor" to adjust the tempo
after 2 minutes, to prevent the rolls from accelerating, usually 25-33%
in performance speed, as there is no capstan for the roll transport.
Then, I mentioned that the steppings for the larger Steinways didn't
match those of the residential instruments, in the arranger's mind.
Steinway pulled out of the project, or at least, didn't lend their name
to it, wisely.
My rolls have been inspired by the brown box Welte arrangements for the
Licensee player (by Howard Lutter), the old demonstration rolls (never
sold to the public), and the few rolls in the Duo-Art library which did
explore the range of the instrument (in the home-sized piano). The
bulk of the library isn't that great on a Weber upright or a Steinway
OR grand, in my opinion, which is the reason why Pianola levers were
included with the typical installation.
I could name about 35 rolls, out of the estimated 6000 commercial
releases, that equal the old demonstration rolls, or my own
arrangements, which is why the word "duo" appears in their tradename.
The owner of a Duo-Art was supposed to "cut in" and/or "take over" to
refine the performances, on their particular piano.
(I have a 1918 Aeolian dealer's treatise, which explains about the dual
purposes of the electric 'reproducing' player. They come right out and
say that musical people become bored, rapidly, by the expression rolls,
so suggest how to get the intelligent owners 'involved' with their new
purchase, using the Pianola levers.)
Thus, Nimbus missed the point and did an "ogre at the keyboard" routine,
in my opinion. Too bad the modern player console wasn't used with a
Steinway M or L (successor to the O) and that some kind of hammer rail
lift couldn't have been installed in their piano. Better yet, why not
record an original M (XR), O/L or an A, with the Duo-Art player, and
be done with it?
All these are my opinions, of course. However, even when running large
pedal-operated grand player instrument -- or the Pianola levers on a
similar-sized Duo-Art with electric power -- one has to be "more
careful" in the P.P. to F.F. interpretations than would be the case
with a home-sized model. Fingers and striking pneumatics are different
fields, so the keyboards aren't part of this equation.
Regards from Maine,
Douglas Henderson - Artcraft Music Rolls
PS: On a sideline subject, after a half century of perforating rolls
and proofing them in our music museum and then in this studio since
1986, I finally had a Monitor (Hitachi) kerosene heating system
installed, which is thermostatic. Our roll storage building has had
one for about 15 years, but progress was slow on the home front. This
means that I can work all year around here. It took the "Winter of
2003" -- which in this area hasn't let up since early December -- to
sign up for this modern convenience. In the past, I'd wait a few days,
and resume activities when Mother Nature cooperated, having played with
kerosene space heaters and electric ones, for decades. We didn't ever
get our predictable 'January thaw' this season, so that led to the
comfort upgrade in my roll studio!