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MMD > Archives > March 2000 > 2000.03.22 > 08Prev  Next

Player Pianos and the Next Generation
By Craig Brougher

We here in the first of the 21st century can still remember playing an
original, unrestored foot-treadled player piano.  We can remember
collections of hundreds or thousands of original rolls.  We have seen
collections of vast numbers of these instruments, and they are still
turning up in the newspapers.

How long do we think this will go on?  Most coin-operated instruments
rather suddenly disappeared from public view.  Looking back on it, it
was almost overnight.  For awhile, we were offered instruments just for
the taking, or for a very small figure.  Today, you can't even buy a
burned out empty case for what some people paid for a complete

My point is that the value of the remaining instruments which have not
been scavenged or butchered, and which have been respectfully and
artfully rebuilt will soon be valuable and rare specimens that future
generations will be amazed at.

I personally count a generation as 35 years.  The oldest of us will not
be around much longer than 3 generations, which is 105 years.  The
heyday of the player piano was about 1926, and within a decade, all but
disappeared.  So what we have today represents 1 generation of American
production (and of course a little longer from European factories) out
of the 250 years this country has been producing things.

From the turn of the 20th century, look around and see how many
65-note players still exist, not to mention their rolls.  The best
88-note players built in the late teens and early 20's were still
playing through the 50's in some cases, and even beyond that.  That's
why *we* remember them.  All they required, even into the 70's, were a
few superficial repairs.  Reproducing pianos received hose and tubing,
covers and outside valve leathers, and those instruments would still
play (sort-of).

But very soon, they won't.  When a player quits playing, due to old
materials still inside of it, it quits quite abruptly, when not played
daily.  The owner thinks, "Well, it must be minor, because it was
playing just fine last Christmas."  That isn't how it works, is it?
Those of us who know players also know they stop in the same way a car
runs out of gas.  Given the chance, spores in valve leather perforate
it and it becomes fluffy, leaky, and dry.

The point is that we are now approaching the time that players cannot
be re-tubed, re-covered, and re-re-tubed and re-re-covered anymore.
Many rebuilders have gone out of business because they didn't do
valves, and when they finally had to do them, they realized that true
"restoration" was a game they didn't like.  Tackle a Solo Art-Apollo
with about 150 very tricky valves sometime, and you'll get a glimmer
of what I am referring to.

We sit here at a crossroads wondering about the future of player
pianos, having experienced player pianos daily for our lifetime, but
already we find that we have no way of describing them to the present
generation.  Unless they actually experience one, they think they
already know what you're talking about, and that it was a crude, early
caveman piece of junk like everything else, then.

What do they have in its place?  CD's and speakers, and chewing-gum for
the ears?  Answer: Basically, nothing.  In many cases, they seldom if
ever hear live music from acoustic instruments, up close and personal.
They listen to speaker generated performances of speaker-generated,
computer-simulated sounds (but demand full-range hi-fidelity.  Hi-Fi
makers boost the 2-6 kHz range unnaturally, because the majority are
half-deaf in this range).  Duh!  This gut-wrenching, bone-jarring
thumping is actually necessary today as a laxative, when bound up with
a combination of Ho-Ho's and Diet Cokes.  So what about the old
players -- organs, orchestrions, violins, and acoustic live instruments
that you can experience, personally?  Do we have anything to offer a
teen zombie?

When I hear the typical weak, alligatored, lily-livered player missing
notes and tearing paper, whose dead, worn-out piano comforts the mice
living inside it, I get a little miffed, I admit.  And when the younger
generation today hears those things, they say, "Why would anybody want
one of those?"  Or, "Dude, if you think that's cool, wait till you hear
_my_ new box."

In case you've forgotten, player music is distinctive.  It sparkles.
It's full of rhythm and chords, and riffs requiring precision, skill,
and coordination far beyond that of modern musical demands.  But you
are going to get one chance only to impress a newcomer.  It's like the
first time you were introduced to spinach.  It was just too different.
If it was really good, you still enjoy it.  If it was a matted,
grey-green mass in the serving bowl that you were expected to try, even
its appearance made you nauseous.  Weak, out-of tune, ugly instruments
are no different to a rock junkie.

Canned music is a reminder of a past performance.  That's all many kids
know, today.  Their guitars, played in real time are, at best, an
amplified recording, and at worst, electronic computerized simulations.
How does one make loudspeakers "exciting?"  Turn it up loud, then take
their minds off it.  They believe it was a great concert as long as
their ears are still ringing.  Hearing aids by age 22 or painful,
deafening irreversible tinnitus become "keepsakes" of these memorable
evenings.  Their cars shudder on the streets, being systematically
demolished by 100 lbs of subwoofers driven through battery cables with
two or three times the horsepower of their environmentally safe sissy
engines -- and they think that's cool?

Yeah, I'd say we definitely have something to show them.

A player roll is a bit more than just a virtual recording.  It is
"firmware."  It is actually a component of the instrument itself,
directly operating valves which then provides a brand-new *live
performance* that instant.  A player roll is a mechanical component
of the instrument in that, while it was made many generations ago its
program is not past, but as fresh as the moment.  You activate it and
the instrument does the playing, live!

They will never make these things in this way with this quality and
durability, again.  This is all you get, and they ain't gonna be no
more.  We "old timers" may take them for granted and just let these
instruments languor in mold and dust, shoved away in garages and
rusting in basements, but they do not "play recordings."  Live,
acoustic instrument performances involve and are modified by both
the acoustics of the room and the human bodies (hence minds) of all
listening in the vicinity.  The instrument  moves the roll, but
responds by playing itself.  That's an indirect relationship, as
opposed to record players which are simply direct conduits for the
percentage of whatever program happens to remain on a record or a CD.
A record player interprets nothing, adds nothing, but always subtracts
a bit from the performance.

Let's keep the basics always in mind, remembering that quality live,
acoustic performances can never be compared to speaker-driven music and
have an altogether different effect on the human psyche.  That's their
unique _Intrinsic Value_, along with their handsome good looks!  Their
_Historic Value_ is equally important, when and if the instrument plays
as it was designed to play.  Likewise their _Artistic Value_ can only
be realized when their art is recreated.  Finally, the _Sentimental
Value_ is there in both the instrument and the performance.  Speakers
likewise have none of this.

Everything hinges on the imposing beauty and performance, therefore.
You cannot say that old phonograph records have these qualities to the
same degree that a player does, because a player is kind-of a living
thing that breathes air, just like we do, and its performance does not
have to degrade with the years.  It is history.  It is NOT archival.

In someone's home, it seems to be the first thing we notice, and the
last thing we forget.  Its price, unrestored, versus its price fully
restored should say something to this point, all by itself.  But if you
think you've seen some new smiles with a simple demonstration of a
player roll, I suspect you haven't seen anything, yet.  Just wait till
the next generation.

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Wed 22 Mar 2000, 17:22:23 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  Generation, Next, Pianos, Player

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