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MMD > Archives > August 2007 > 2007.08.14 > 05Prev  Next


Scott Joplin Piano Rolls
By Robert Perry

Hi all,  There is little doubt that Joplin was in fact involved with
the Connorized rolls bearing his name.  This was confirmed by
Connorized themselves in a 1916 press release:

  'New York, March 23 [1916]  -- Connorized ... has engaged the services
  of Scott Joplin, the well-known colored composer, who is said to be
  one of the finest ragtime piano players in this country...  Mr. Joplin
  is considered one of the greatest exponents of ragtime ... and can
  play this syncopated music as only members of the Negro race can.
  He is one of the first of the Negro pianists to introduce ragtime,
  and his compositions are among the best ragtime melodies in this
  country.'

A March 25th advertisement referred to Joplin as 'the originator of
ragtime.'

However, I recently acquired a copy of the alternate take of "Maple
Leaf Rag" that Scott Joplin recorded for the Aeolian Company in 1916,
and was released on their Uni-Record label.  I believe this single,
solitary roll is the most accurate representation of Joplin's playing
that we have.

By 1916 Aeolian had years of recording hand played performances under
their belt -- in fact, for the last two years their Duo-Art system had
been available, which offered reproducing expression rolls.  As early
as 1913, there was a piano roll recording facility at Aeolian Hall in
New York, initially at the 42nd Street premises.

Unlike other roll companies, Aeolian used a real-time perforator to
produce an original roll as the artist played.  Rex Lawson writes,
"This machine, patented by Edwin Votey, was capable of punching at
around 3,600 perforation rows per minute, giving an accuracy, on this
first roll, of 1/60th of a second."

(By comparison, most other roll manufacturers, including QRS, used
a marking piano, which marked rather than perforated a master roll,
which then had to be perforated by hand).

Another important point in favour of the Aeolian roll is the punch
advance rate.  To copy the rolls quickly and consistently, the roll
perforating machinery punches holes in regularly spaced rows.  The
start and end timings of notes must then be quantized to align with
a punch row.  The perforator punch advance from one row to the next
is inevitably a compromise between note timing accuracy and speed of
manufacture.  In layman's terms, once the roll had been recorded,
someone had to sit down with it, and fit all the notes into certain
locations on the paper, to suit the punch advance.

The Aeolian Uni-Record roll of "Maple Leaf Rag" has a punch advance
of 408 rows per foot; that means, per 12 inches of paper, there are
408 possible locations for the editor to set the beginning and end
of each note.

By comparison, the Joplin Connorized rolls have an extremely coarse
punch advance rate of 132 rows per foot, so the editor had less than
1/3 of the possible locations to set each note at.  Therefore, the
Joplin Connorized rolls have the possibility of being only 1/3 as
faithful to the hand played master roll as the Aeolian roll does, all
other things being equal.  In practise, a rate of 132 rows per foot
makes the faithful reproduction of hand played effects, such as rubato,
impossible -- but with the higher Aeolian punch advance, the artist's
playing is reproduced reasonably well.

To blame the recording machinery for the rather horrific performance
of "Maple Leaf Rag" overlooks the fact that the hundreds of Uni-Record
rolls produced by other pianists (including ragtime) are noticeably
smoother.  With all this in mind, the departures by Joplin from the
printed score in the Aeolian roll become all the more interesting.
Much has been made of the bass octave runs present in the Connorized
rolls (which are completely characteristic of Connorized staff artist
William "Billy" Axtmann/Arlington, used in most of his rag rolls..),
but little has been written about the Aeolian roll's deviations.

Aside from the fact that Joplin fails to take any of the repeats,
resulting in a very short performance of just over two minutes, there
are a couple of other interesting embellishments.  At 1m 28s there's an
extra F in the right hand; at 1m 51s a similar extra E-flat is added.
These could simply be accidental hand-brushes (the recording machine
was apparently quite sensitive), but in both cases they're in exactly
the right place to add an extra 'oomph' to the syncopation.  At 1m 34s
Joplin adds a James Scott-style flourish to the right hand to end the
phrase, and in the final cadence to finish the piece, he leaves out the
middle chord entirely, just playing the bass octave.  There may well be
more interesting little differences; I haven't compared the roll with
the score note-for-note.

As for tempo, the Connorized rolls around the era of the Joplin
releases were carrying the following notice printed on the box:

  "TO PLAYER PIANO OWNERS.
  Owing to the fact that it is impossible for any two motors to run at
  exactly the same speed, we, on our part, can only approximate the
  proper tempo for the various different motors.  Try the selection at
  the designated tempo and should it not suit, increase or decrease the
  speed to conform to your personal idea of the rendition.  CONNORIZED
  MUSIC CO."

So even back then, they were up-front about acknowledging the lack of
accuracy of the tempo stamp!

Regards,
Robert Perry
Auckland, New Zealand


(Message sent Wed 15 Aug 2007, 01:43:45 GMT, from time zone GMT+1200.)

Key Words in Subject:  Joplin, Piano, Rolls, Scott

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