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MMD > Archives > November 2005 > 2005.11.30 > 05Prev  Next

Enjoying Classical and Popular Piano Rolls
By Jim Neher

Paul Murphy's great comments on classical rolls should provoke
some good thoughts.  I have been distressed about the polarized
discussion that sometimes occurs.

There's an ancient Certs commercial where the announcer yells,
"Stop!  You're both right!"

All of us who work with reproducing rolls are amazed (sooner or
later) with the thrilling performances that _sometimes_ come from
them.  No "snob" (too bad these terms still get used) can tell us

On the other hand, to deny the limitations of classical rolls
doesn't make sense either.  Horowitz chose very few pianos and
insisted on them.  Every great pianist interacts with the unique
characteristics of the piano he is playing.  Even if you could
transfer all the key-strikes accurately to a different piano,
it could not duplicate that performance.  Rachmaninoff's disc of
the Ruins of Athens March contains pedal imitations of short-range
echo shots off of buildings.

These are the type of subtleties no roll editor ever attempted to
capture.  A live pianist has instantaneous control over every
independent finger, and a pedal gradient of at least three-quarters
of an inch.  Hole-length manipulation and de-synchronization can
give back part of this texture, but not all.  This is plain from
examining the rolls.

But the rolls at their best are astounding feats, and sources of
great pleasure.  There are even, properly understood, sources of
information about the pianists whose names appear on them, and of
the musical conventions of the time.

So it's too bad when some people speak of the rolls as fraudulent
or inept, and it's too bad when other people say the early disc
recordings are primitive and unlistenable.  And it's too bad when
one side martials the advertising quotes in which artists claim the
rolls represent their very soul, and the other side martials the
off-the-record sneers by artists who collect their checks and send
surrogates in to record rolls for them.

We don't have perfect records of artists who have passed on.  The
ongoing efforts to restore and make available their legacy at all
levels should receive our gratitude.  (What a time to be alive!)
There is no battle to be won or lost over this.  Commercial stakes
have gone by the wayside; it's now in the hands of good-hearted
archivists, collectors, craftsmen and scientists.  Cool heads should
at long last prevail.

Jim Neher

(Message sent Wed 30 Nov 2005, 17:36:02 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Classical, Enjoying, Piano, Popular, Rolls

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