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MMD > Archives > November 1999 > 1999.11.20 > 08Prev  Next

"Ballet Mecanique" Disklavier Concert (Part 2 of 3)
By Douglas Henderson

"Ballet Mecanique" Disklavier Concert Review, 11-19-99 (Part 2 of 3)

 [ This 3-part article reviews the concert which featured 16
 [ Yamaha Disklavier pianos, performed at the University of
 [ Massachusetts, Lowell MA, on Thursday, November 18, 1999.
 [ Previous MMD articles about this topic may be found at
 [  -- Robbie

Musician Michael Potash (who was involved with my end of the Swedish
TV-Radio project of 1991) and I went together to Durgin Hall.  Like me
he knows "just about every note" of this work in its Pianola form, and
possesses a Franklin Marque Ampico, a pedal 'reproducing' player

We began the afternoon in Framingham, Mass. by having a live perform-
ance of Ballet Mecanique: one of the Pleyel rolls which belonged to
the composer was run, in part, as 'Brand X', and then the Artcraft Roll
Set of mine was performed from beginning to end.  This gave us an
opportunity to absorb the accents (marked on my rolls as well as the
composer's player roll score), remember some key "time space" sections
(which matched the original-length movie) and get into the spirit of a
Jazz Age 'moderne' Art Deco composition, written in the 1920s but
realized in perforated form during the months of 1990-1991, when I was
commissioned to make the rolls for director Wahlgren.

The first part of the program showcased Jeffrey Fischer, conductor of
the University of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion ensemble, with piano
soloists Juanita Tsu and John McDonald.  His talented and energetic,
dedicated group opened with a percussion piece which (since I'm
obviously no expert on modern compositions beyond my "lifetime" with
George Antheil!) something that reminded me of Balinese music, with a
tinge of Jamaican rhythms here and there.  The first one was quite
similar in effect to some Parlophone 78s our neighbors had, recorded
in the South Seas in the late 1920s.

Summed up, the percussion numbers were interesting and the interplay
was fascinating to watch as well as hear.  (I somewhat expected this,
since the National Public Radio interviewer -- covering the pre-concert
publicity, a day or so earlier -- said that the xylophonists, keyboard
pianists and percussionists were more intriguing than the self-playing
pianos.  Well, nothing beats a human in control -- be it a live
musician or a Pianolist interpreting rolls for pianos and/or organs).

Again, I'm no expert on the 3 pieces that Richard Grayson wrote: a
premiere on the Disklavier instruments.  However, it seemed to me on
the first hearing that these were a "shade more creative" than the
typical MIDI arrangements which rely too much on notation standards, or
what I call 'electronic graph paper' (referring to the perforating
methods described above).

Later, during Intermission, I ran into musician and computer expert
Mark Lutton, who was engaged in telling me that the Grayson transcrip-
tions made more use of MIDI than the rest of the program, which pretty
much followed the music scores.  (Humans read scores but don't play
them to the letter, which is what makes for individualistic
interpretations in the performing world.  Notation is a "code" which
the artist interprets.  Old Pianola rolls usually just played back the
sheet music, which dominated factory arranging in the heyday of the

I never learned any more about the differences between the Grayson
performances and the others, since Mark got interrupted and others came
to view my player rolls, one of which belonged to George Antheil, as
stated above.

The finale from the Mendelssohn 'Italian' symphony represented a lot
of work, obviously, since it involved so many electronic player instru-
ments.  However Mark, and other musicians I knew in the audience that
night, told me that this was locked too much into notation to suit
their fancy.  I felt that my Mendelssohn should be frothy, with defined
accents, and that the trills shouldn't come on like machine guns when
they were required.  Thus, any "Gatling gun trill" is a performance
'no-no' in my book.

(Artcraft Rolls don't have the old player roll "punch-skip-punch"
trill pattern: the staccato is graduated and in many cases a slight
stepping change in the figuration adds a human element to this
ornament.  I allow for the finger -- as imagined -- to reach the key,
pause for a split moment in time, gain momentum and then change in a
variety of ways as the subconscious mind tells the artist to head for
another key at the end.  Magnetic tapes have been used for audio
analysis since I first began working with rolls in 1952 as a teenager.)

Instead of the dynamic changes (solo notes, wild intensity swings and
the like), this complicated arrangement used the pipe organ technique
of adding or subtracting pipes, but in this case the plus-minus aspect
happened to involve the 16 solenoid players.

While pianos doubled, tossed the music right and left, and so forth,
the astute listener in the audience heard little beyond large chords,
in a rather muted mezzo forte. range, and those irritating "barrel
organ" trills mentioned above.  Why?

The answer lies in the fact that the more pianos one adds, the more
the strings cancel the sound, acoustics being what they are.  Igor
Stravinsky didn't understand this (and I have a book which details his
letters with the Pleyel roll factory during the arranging of rolls in
his name).  What Igor did, Antheil copied.

(Later, Oscar Levant writes "A Smattering Of Ignorance" -- his best-
selling book.  Immediately, Antheil follows with "The Bad Boy Of
Music", another example of his following a trend.  My copy of the
Antheil book even opens with a quote from the Levant book, showing the
connection there.  My copy of the Pleyel score has instructions which
say "just like Stravinsky" in one place!)

The antique musical box people knew, in the early 19th Century, what
duplicates of notes could do for the music.  Sublime Harmonie cylinder
boxes (2 or more combs) up through the Symphonion 'Eroica' 3-disc
musical box (6 independent scales, playing together!) all faced this
duplicate pitch problem.  The solution on musical boxes was to alter
the tuning -- ever so slightly -- so that, say 6 "Middle C" notes and
5 "C#" notes in a trill wouldn't be canceling each other out.  Even
today, in our music box shop in Lexington MA (The Merry Music Box),
it's typical for a 36-note Swiss movement to be _louder_ than a 50-note
one, and that in turn, is _louder_ than a 72-note or 144-note (dual
comb) scale.

Clearly, more is NOT louder in the field of musical boxes and

Mark Lutton, mentioned above, had a key seat in Durgin Hall.  Being a
MIDI expert, and also knowing its many limitations, he thought there
might be a 500-millisecond 'delay' with that many pianos running on a
program.  This he called a "MIDI smear", and upon talking with him
during intermission, he detailed the time span between the instruments
on each side of the auditorium.  Clearly, the Disklaviers, even from
where we sat, were not truly synchronized, as claimed in the concert

By the time intermission began we welcomed the return of the live
musicians, since those Disklavier pianos -- played extensively by this
time -- had a "Home Show organist" sound, something like "YOU CAN'T BE
TRUE DEAR", in what I used to call the 'Ken Griffin' style.  I longed
for a sforzando 'crash' accents or a solo note in the passages, rising
above the texture, as good music roll performances easily provide.

We enjoyed the lecture which preceded the premiere of the 16-Disklavier
Ballet Mecanique performance.  It was fairly sketchy on the details of
the sundry Antheil versions, and history thereof, but was pretty heavy
with the anecdotes about the composer's life, most being recollections
published in 1945 or recorded by KPCC-FM in Santa Monica, shortly
before his death.  "After-the-fact Antheil" is always suspect, in my

I, for one, would have liked to know more about this mysterious "Pleyel
patent" that was supposed to synchronize Pianolas, which Mr. Lehrman
mentioned in his entertaining dialogue, interspersed with slides and
audio clips related to the composer.

While the audience was told that 16 pneumatic mechanical pianos
couldn't be synchronized until "now", with the emergence of the
Disklavier, this is not true.  (He mentioned several other solenoid
player brands but eliminated the earlier Pianocorder and the Boesen-
dorfer SE -- the latter a costly instrument which is the best of the
lot, as the giant 93-key 'Imperial' model at M.I.T. can be when
adjusted correctly.)

It's too bad that the people involved didn't get in touch with me on
much of the pre-concert publicity, when they stated that "Pianolas
can't be synchronized" as an historical fact.

Aeolian in the late 1890s had some Pianola concerts (then a 58-Note
console player attached to a pianoforte keyboard) which were connected
by electrical lines to their Orchestrelle player reed organs and their
Aeolian Pipe Organs.  The Music Box society reprinted, about 25 years
ago, an illustrated review of such a concert which took place in their
Philadelphia dealership of the time.  The photo shows the Pianola with
the two organs controlled from it on either side of the pneumatic
player.  All three shared the same 58-Note scale at that time,
incidentally.  The 88-Note player roll wasn't standardized until 1909.

In the early 1900's the Tel-Electric Co. of Pittston, Mass. made
instruments using brass (later heavy cardboard) music rolls, which in
turn activated solenoid strikers, just like the computer players of
today.  Unlike the Disklaviers and their kind, these could play octaves
and chords, including _large_ chords, in unison, and they weren't
limited to approximately 15 piano keys, before they conked out.
(Ballet Mecanique was written for Pianola with up to 31-notes playing
in unison -- clearly out of the range of a single Disklavier, but easy
for any good pneumatic player to handle.)

Later, in the 'Teens, the Flexotone-Electrelle (made by the American
Piano Co., later makers of the Ampico) published articles in which
upright pianos were synchronized at strategic places around a dance
hall or ballroom (like Roseland in New York City, perhaps?), allowing
all the pianos to play together and therefore to be able to provide for
synchronized dance music at any place in the room.  The Flexotone used
standard Pianola rolls, by the way, and a small vacuum source to
activate the microswitches which sent the musical information to the
electro-magnetic strikers.

In the old days, the solenoid player never really caught on.  Why?
Boring music was the norm.  Everything played pretty much at one
dynamic, for the most part, and so they were never really much of any
competition to the pneumatic player action industry, save being used
on private yachts (where humidity could be a factor) or in synchronized
fashion for dancing purposes, as described above.

Regards from Maine,

Douglas Henderson -- Artcraft Music Rolls

 [ Part 3 of 3 will appear in 991121 MMDigest. ]

(Message sent Fri 19 Nov 1999, 22:00:20 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  2, 3, Ballet, Concert, Disklavier, Mecanique, Part

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