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Pianists, Piano Music & Technology
Pianolas & Reproducing Pianos

Music, and listening to it nowadays, is pervaded by technology. This afternoon I walked in the park with my iPod, enthralled by Paderewski in his prime playing immaculately a fine 1926 Steinway Grand [Aeolia 2002] !

During that morning we had been absorbed by CDs of player piano studies, composed laboriously in his Mexican isolation by Conlon Nancarrow; "for me the best music of any today living composer" (Ligeti) or, more modestly, "I've discovered a little musical niche, but I believe I've explored it well" (Conlon Nancarrow - pictured L with James Tenney).

Advances in technology have tended to blur the boundaries between mortality and immortality. Leaving apart questions of cryonics, we learned only at the end of the classic film Sunset Boulevard, which we saw yesterday, that the narrator had been murdered in the last reel...

Why this distraction from the 'proper' tasks of a generalist music journal's editor? Our current preoccupation with piano rolls resulted from a kind invitation in response to our welcome, an inadequate one, to The Aeolian Company [NMC Archive Series D136].

We spent an enthralling afternoon with Rex Lawson, UK's leading pianolist, and his close collaborator Denis Hall, being filled in about the Pianola, "one of the most widely misunderstood musical instruments in the world". Their devotion to this esoteric 'niche' is based in the extension to Hall's modest home, built especially to accommodate four fine examples of historic Pianolas and Reproducing Grand Pianos, all maintained in perfect working order.

Rolls created from music scores for the former type need a trained pianolist (there are very few of those) to bring to life the holes punched in paper; the latter type of instrument enables you to recreate automatically interpretations which had been set down long, long ago by great pianists and composer-pianists, with dynamics and rhythmic subtleties approved by their creators embedded in the rolls themselves.

With well restored instruments, such as those belonging to Denis Hall, the results are profoundly challenging and of huge importance, especially for the understanding and appreciation of 19th C. & early 20th century HIPP (historically informed piano performance practice).

That field has until now been dominated by the Early Music Movement which has tended to concentrate upon the Baroque and earlier, speculatively inevitably because lacking the benefit of actual sound recordings of the times.

Rex Lawson demonstrated how ugly and unmusical the pianola can sound left to itself. He then showed what a huge difference an informed performance can make, using as a starting guide the red line which runs up the paper roll (see it on the right hand side of the NMC cover). Together Lawson & Hall have created many pianola rolls from printed scores, and he played us part of a Rachmaninoff Suite for Two Pianos, effectively conflated on the one instrument.

My close up photo illustrates how Lawson performs. Whilst his feet control the dynamics, creating many different levels and accents, hand levers are responsible for 'subduing the music as desired' with regard to treble/bass balance and instilling instantaneous tempo variations and rubato, whch Lawson equates with the baton of a good conductor. None of that had been comprehensible to non-cognoscenti in the Purcell Room auditorium at The Pianola Institute's 21st Birthday Concert, covered by Musical Pointers.

Denis Hall then allowed us to hear on his precious instruments samples of his important collection of historic rolls. Fauré's mannerisms, playing one of his nocturnes, needed some getting used to. No problems with Busoni in superb form (Beethoven/Liszt Adelaide) or English pianist Herbet Fryer dazzling in Beethoven Op 2/2, his arpeggios and runs in the finale flying like arrows to their targets; a performance in the same league as today's best pianists.

The whole subject is something of a cultural minefield, but an addictive one. There are factions, shoddy productions on the market to be avoided, those helping to generate deep suspicions of the whole esoteric topic. One could go on and on, and I shall...

We took home two copies of The Pianola Journal and read them cover to cover, together with the double CD of Ignace Jan Paderewski in Recital (rolls originally recorded/released1922-36) playing a Duo-Arte piano prepared and recorded by Denis Hall. It is a disc which should be in every piano department's record library, and obligatory listening for students. It carries a provocative article by Ronald Stevenson (Musical Pointers celebrated his 80th birthday festival recently) from his book The Paderewski Paradox.

Ignorance alone is responsible for the widespread disinterest in pianolas, which can be bought at derisory prices, including Push-Ups which are easily transported for attaching to normal pianos for concert use.

When will the first British University or Piano Department in one of our prestigious academies and colleges appoint a Professor of Pianola to broaden the teaching of aspiring pianists in 19th Century performance practice and teach how to actually play these rewarding instruments? There is urgency as the few experts are no longer young and the tradition is at risk of dying.

And there is plenty there for young composers to think about too. Rex Lawson's CD has original compositions and arrangements for pianola by a wide range of British and continental composers; MDG has, in addition to their Nancarrow series, a spin off in the form of Original Compositions in the Tradition of Nancarrow [MDG 645 1406-2] and Piano Music Without Limits - original compositions of the 1920s [MDG 645 1404-2], repertoire including originals by Casella, Malipiero, Ravel & Stravinsky's marvellous Étude pour pianola - their selection overlapping with Rex Lawson's for NMC's first choices of pianola compositions from that inspiring decade of innovation.

For Nancarrow's Studies, you'll be better off however with the earlier Wergo releases taken from LPs whcih perpetuate the timbre of Conlon Nancarrow's custom-altered 1927 Ampico reproducing piano at the composer's studio in Mexico [Wergo WER 6907-2].

Room could easily be found for a Push Up pianola in RAM's Piano Gallery (pictured at Royal Academy of Music Public Teaching Events 2005). It would go really nicely with their early Steinway Grand.

If the nettle isn't grasped quickly by either of the local departments in South East London, near where Lawson & Hall both live, surely the Royal Academy, Royal College of Music or the Guildhall School of Music and Drama won't all let the opportunity pass them by?

Peter Grahame Woolf

Look out for a pianola event at the National Gallery in London, October - date to be confirmed.