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MMD > Archives > November 2001 > 2001.11.09 > 06Prev  Next


Art vs. Player Piano Conversions
By Craig Brougher

A few comments about esthetics, conversions, and the art of the
reproducing piano.

Regarding the ethics of piano conversions, it stands to reason that
those who believe that someone else's Mason & Hamlin or any player
should not be gutted are never the owners of those pianos, nor do they
wish to be.  They seldom put their money where their mouth is, and
belly up to the bar with a check.  If it's desecration, then you can
take care of that problem immediately, right?  Whales beach themselves,
yet millions are spent to put them back in the water, whether they want
it that way or not.  Great pianos get gutted after everyone is warned
first what's going to happen and yet nobody has yet formed a Society to
Save The Reproducers, and not one penny has crossed the board to that
end.

I have had many requests by owners of instruments as a piano restorer
over the years, and most of them I can satisfy.  After all, it's not
my piano -- it's their piano, so it's their call.  Some may think it's
because I have seen so many, that they are not as "rare" to me as they
are to you, but regardless, they are not a "work of art" but a product
of an art.  There's a difference.

I have seen fair to middlin' Mason and Hamlins, and I have seen great
ones, and despite all your opinion to the contrary, it is not simply a
matter of voicing.  Some pianos, regardless of their brand name, aren't
very good sounding pianos.  That's because they are built in a piano
factory, en mass.  The same goes for any other brand of piano you care
to name.  The "work of art," in my book, is what a musician would
consider a work of art, not what a connoisseur of fine machinery would
call a work of art.  There _are_ pianos that happen to also be a work
of art, but the Ampico or Duo-Art or Welte inside it doesn't happen to
be part of its individual "art."  I would agree that its design is art,
its _regulation_ also qualifies as art, and most especially the music
arrangements in its rolls are "art."

When we stand around and look at the carburetor of an old engine, we
don't call it a work of art, but when we admire the body lines of the
completed car, we might.  When we put a garland on the fastest car,
we don't call that a work of art.  We call it the fastest.  When we
get out our tape measure and find the biggest one, we call that the
biggest.  We stand back and admire the architecture and amenities of
a beautiful car, then we call that art because it's beautiful to see,
but is that mass-produced car itself art?  No.  Lloyds of London will
not be called upon to pay.  It gets hauled to the dump, crushed down,
melted, and made into another car.  Nobody says, "There will never be
another."  There are thousands.

Art can be expertise, or it can be an esthetic product, but art is one
of a kind when it's machinery.  That then would include certain band
organs, dance organs, and ( I like to think, certain...) orchestrions.
But it's the music they play and how they play it that is the art.
The device that plays it, if one of hundreds or thousands, is the means
to an end.  It represents art, but so does the frame of a Rembrandt.

Let's be logical: How come, if one claims that a Mason & Hamlin
represents the highest form of the builder's art, that for someone
else, for example, the Chickering doesn't?  So it's quite okay to gut
a piano built by Chickering, but it's a desecration to gut a Mason &
Hamlin?  I hate to break anybody's bubble, but when they define art
as the name on the fallboard of a reproducing grand piano itself, then
they contradict themselves!  The art is the technique, the precise
regulation, the beauty of the music, the tone of the piano.  And then
what's left over?  Well, if the case is a one-of-a-kind -- which we call
an "art case," or an Italian carved case, or a painted case -- then you
have "art."  Art, by general acceptance, is strictly individualistic
esthetics, craft, skill, artifice, and cleverness.  It is what makes
great architecture beautiful.  But a row of flats, fancied up with
Corinthian columns and balustrades, while produced by an art, are
themselves not art.

This, unfortunately, is very American thinking, a demeaning ho-hum
ignorance and lack of interest and appreciation for details and beauty
of arrangements in music.  I have been to a few musical collector
meetings for instance, in which the important thing seems to be what
instruments you have, instead of how well they played.  I also like
the variety aspect of a collection very much, by the way.  But I was
noticing the emphasis was not on their capabilities.  When the guests
are invited to play the instruments after the demonstration, I
discovered that I could clear the room of visitors by playing a roll or
two on a particularly good instrument.  Obviously, the real enthusiasm
wasn't in the music.  I had the room all to myself after that.  Nobody
else wanted to play them the entire day.  It doesn't make you feel
especially welcome.  Luckily, I never needed to feel welcome when
I know what's important.  (I do not say that all are like that.  I am
sorry that so many are, however).

Then I saw at another meeting several people sitting, listening to a
reproducer that could barely play at all, and I wondered, how can they
stand that?  It wasn't even in tune and had never been tuned since it
was moved in over 5 years earlier, and it definitely wasn't playing the
roll artistically.  Some may say this is mainly a lack of education and
I agree.  But, they educated themselves about the machinery, so
whenever they decide to, they can educate themselves to at least a
degree about how well the machinery performs.  It's all in what they
value the most -- the thing, or the spirit of the thing.  In my opinion,
they are not getting their money's worth.

Now, if these aficionados had it stressed to them that the true value
of any given instrument was in the way it performed instead of who
built it, or the name on the fallboard, or how few there are in
existence, then they would be evaluating the right things, while still
appreciating the uniqueness.  Its true value would be realized, and how
it played would become more important than who built it.  Reminds me of
the ad for Levelor Blinds: the guest looks to see who made the blinds,
rather than whether or not the blinds were beautiful, functional, and
proper for the window they were on.

I do not fully disagree with anybody who has written negatively about
converting a Yamaha concert grand to an Ampico for instance, nor do
I agree fully, either.  Nor do I criticize the owner for wanting to do
it.  Those pianos belong to him.  They are not one-of-a-kind works of
art, and he has my blessing to do it.  I just hope that for him, bigger
isn't better, and that the quality of the music on the roll is
primarily the end result of such an undertaking.  It should be music
that a musician would appreciate and say, "Wow! Amazing! Could an
Ampico roll do all that?"

All I would say about his project is this: "If you're going to do it,
then do it right, and make us proud!"

Craig Brougher


(Message sent Fri 9 Nov 2001, 15:12:05 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  Art, Conversions, Piano, Player, vs

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