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"THE PIANOLA NEWS" —
Sunday: January 25, 1998 - Vol. I, No. 3
Since the PIANOLA (a.k.a. Player-Piano and 'Reproducing' Piano) is a mechanical-pneumatic
musical instrument — often electrically-pumped in the expression player models
— one would not expect there would be much cross-pollination with electronic
musical instruments, such as the Hammond Organ™, the Solovox™ or the modern
There have been uneasy relationships between the fields of "electronic" and "mechanical" music, but many of these were short lived. Steinway Hall tried, for a time, the retailing of Hammond Organs in the 'Thirties — but it didn't last. There were the odd console pianos by Story & Clark and Janssen called 'Organos' … combining the acoustic pianoforte with vacuum tube electronic organs; these were offered in the 'Fifties. Pianos with radio amplification and phonograph units built into them have been offered in the recent past ... and Janssen once sold an upright Secretary combining a limited-scale 'Recordo'-style expression player, a desk, bookshelf and radio. Earlier, at the start of the Great Depression, the Kohler Company built a few Welte-Mignon (Licensee) keyboardless pianos with electric radios and phonographs, looking something like an ultra-heavy Capehart™ record changer (for those of us old enough to recall 78's being shifted and flipped about in solidly-built cabintry).
Enter the THEREMIN — the first "electronic" musical instrument, ancestor of many later developments which led up to the modern synthesizers. We'll let the Britannica CD define this unique invention:
THEREMIN, also called THEREMINVOX, or ETHEROPHONE, electronic musical instrument invented in 1920 in the Soviet Union by Leon Theremin (also called Lev Termen). It consists of a box with radio tubes producing oscillations at two sound-wave frequencies above the range of hearing; together, they produce a lower audible frequency equal to the difference in their rates of vibration. Pitch is controlled by moving the hand or a baton toward or away from an antenna at the right rear of the box. This movement alters one of the inaudible frequencies. Harmonics, or component tones, of the sound can be filtered out, allowing production of several tone colours over a range of six octaves.
At the end of the 'Twenties, when the Radio Corporation of America used Aeolian Hall as their quarters (prior to the completion of Radio City at Rockefeller Center in 1931), the young radio company joined with inventor Theremin and decided to produce a commercial version of the instrument. This was the RCA #1264, offered from 1929 through the early 'Thirties ... and it received only marginal success with the general public. On the vaudeville stage and on (live) radio programs it found a ready but short-lived market, however — as a performance instrument. RCA farmed-out the electronic components to General Electric and Westinghouse, while the odd-looking "lectern"-style cabinet came from the Jamestown Mantel Company in upstate New York.
While only 500 hundred models were supposedly built for RCA — with 485 actually being sold in those Depression days — it's interesting to note that The Aeolian Company also got involved with this "new music" trend. The ARTCRAFT Studio has Model #503 ... a few serial numbers higher than the Radio Coporation of America records indicate, and the instrument has a decal designating it as an Aeolian-RCA product. (Aeolian Hall in New York City used one of their Player-Piano labels for the Theremin pedigree!) Whether this particular Theremin was made 'after' the RCA advertising campaign ... as a demonstration instrument for use with the Duo-Art 'reproducing' pianos at Aeolian Hall ... or as a special-order product, nobody knows today. Outside of the decal, it's a stock Model "AR #1264" instrument, with the same features as the model marketed briefly by RCA.
We interrupt this narrative to suggest that those interested in the fascinating history of the Theremin (and its recent revival) check out The Theremin Home Page, created by Jason Blue Barile. Here, you will find all sorts of information and features, including a Registry of existing RCA #1264's ... and photographs of the surviving historic models. Here's the Internet address: http://www.Nashville.Net/~theremin/ (It's worth a visit, and you'll be there a long time if you sample all the Theremin resources!) There's also a daily newsletter called the LEVNET Digest, named for the inventor ... and you can subscribe by writing to the Editor, David Ball — c/o this E-Mail address: email@example.com [LEVNET Digest is not "monitored", something that ARTCRAFT finds refreshing when compared to journals for the Pianola sphere. Of course, words such as "edited" and "reviewed" are used instead of the real word: censorship. Unvarnished Internet communications, such as LEVNET Digest provides, have their ups and downs, but maintain a vitality which the "monitored" equivalents do not, filtration being the great leveler. We mention this for those used to the tranquil, often comatose publications for the Player-Piano field.]
Aeolian-RCA Theremin #503 was used at The Musical Wonder House by Mr. Henderson, playing duets with the Steinway "AR" Duo-Art grand piano ... and featuring special accompaniment rolls made for the purpose. These custom-made rolls for Guided Tours were inspired by the RCA-Victor 78's of the period, all of which featured salon orchestra — OR — pianoforte accompaniment. The old 'Orthophonic' recordings presented contemporary ballad tunes, and so music such as PAGAN LOVE SONG was performed at the museum in that long-ago period called "The 'Sixties". As with Aeolian Hall in the late 'Twenties, there was a Player-Piano connection between the two types of instruments!
Time marches on. The other day the latest QRS Player Roll Catalogue [1997-1998] arrived, featuring on page 70 ... guess what? A Theremin advertisement, with the implication that it could be used in connection with player roll performances! History repeats itself for a third time! (Note: You can obtain a catalogue from QRS Music Inc., at 1026 Niagara Street, Buffalo NY 14213.)
Perhaps the reason why the PIANOLA and the THEREMIN joined hands at several points in history was due to the fact that they were both promoted in the same manner. "Anyone can play it" was the old Player-Piano catch-phrase. RCA said in 1929: "An absolutely new unique musical instrument anyone can play — not a radio, not a phonograph ... not like anything you have ever heard or seen" . QRS says in 1998: "Instructions are included...so that you can master the basic moves. Once you've mastered the basics, you can develop your own style." It helps to "read rolls" and "know musical structure" when playing the Player-Piano. It helps if you are already a violinist or a 'cellist when learning the Theremin.
And what of Aeolian-RCA #503? Mr. Henderson got re-interested in the instrument when, by chance, the First Theremin Festival was held in Portland, ME (of all places!) from June 16-21, 1997, under the auspices of Olivia Mattis. Among the speakers at the Theremin Symposium on the 21st were Robert Moog (who started the revival of the instrument), Albert Glinsky (who has a forthcoming book called Out of Thin Air: Theremin and the Age of Ether), Dennis James (known for this theatre organ performances) and Lydia Kavina — Leon Theremin's last protégée and an absolute wizard on the instrument! Ms. Kavina's peformances of Gershwin's SUMMERTIME and Kern's SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES rank high in the memories of those who witnessed her stellar interpretations on the Theremin.
One of the highlights at the Theremin Festival was discovering Reid Welch from Florida ... who has devoted so much study to the electronic instrument, that one is amazed whenever he posts an historical or technical text in the LEVNET Digest. Currently, he's working on the transformer of old #503 which went silent after several decades of storage. If you own an antique Theremin or know of someone interested in having their instrument restored, here's his Internet addresss: firstname.lastname@example.org (As you can guess, Theremin experts are hard to find these days!) Reid is part of the movement within the Theremin community aiming to recreate the "original sound" of the instruments, as they had with vacuum tubes. He, like ARTCRAFT, believes that the instrument is at its best playing MELODIES rather than being used for sound-effects. The Theremin, of course, can be coaxed into electronic burps and noises for rock bands and horror movies ... and has. The schism in the Theremin revival parallels the current one for player piano instruments: tubes vs. transistors [plus the musical content or lack thereof] ... and ... Pianola pneumatics vs. computer-operated solenoids for electronic player actions.
We, who lean toward MELODY — wish the "return to good music" Thereminists the best of success. Meanwhile, it might not be long before the old Aeolian-RCA model joins forces with the pneumatic instruments in Maine, thereby continuing an seemingly odd musical partnership. If you have ever heard the old 78's from the late 'Twenties and early 'Thirties, some featuring the inventor as the soloist, then you can imagine the eerie and 'cello-like tone which is possible with the instrument. We also recommend the virtuoso recording, now on CD, featuring Clara Rockmore playing her Theremin. (Mrs. Rockmore, by the way, was the sister of Nadia Reisenberg, whose name appears on Aeolian's Duo-Art roll labels. It's a small world in music, isn't it?)
We've all seen the scenario: The Player-Piano (or 'Reproducing' Piano) owner inserts
the roll …stares at the Tempo Number stamped on the leader … slowly, carefully sets
this Number as indicated … and then starts the music, without ever recalibrating
the paper travel speed again.
The first minute to a minute-and-a-half of the Pianola performance is pleasant. Those who have a sense of metre in their psyche begin to wish that the Tempo had been set a bit lower about the time that the second minute arrives. Performing musicians and concert pianists start getting anxious over the "creeping accelerando" (roll speed-up) by two-and-a-half minutes. Finally, anyone who REALLY LISTENS to the music knows that something is WRONG — and reaches out to readjust the Tempo Lever, or considers leaving the room where the instrument is located.
Stereo Review magazine wrote a number of years ago, when a letter to the Editor complained about Gershwin's RHAPSODY IN BLUE racing along (on an LP record of the time), "The tempo on player-pianos is the same as it is on phonograph records: 33, 45 and 78 … and the rolls were recorded by following the EXACT tempo indicated on each one."
Exact Tempo? Player-Pianos have no capstan as do tape recorders; these assure a constant linear speed for the recorded material. Turntables for LP's can be checked with strobe attachments for a correct speed. Music rolls are something else: the paper thickness and spoolbox braking systems differ, causing the "paper build-up" on the lower spool to vary, even with repeated plays on the same instrument! The diameter of the take-up spool was never standardized, and some designs — such as the Janssen 'Palestrina' or the Christman 'Attachable' — had spools with smaller-than-normal diameters … and these instruments 'forced' the Pianolist to readjust the Tempo control every 15 seconds, following the first minute of performance!
This means, of course, that no musical person can walk away from an electric expression player, such as the Duo-Art, and consider that they are hearing a 'recorded' performance — if they really listen to the musical results.
As the vacuum fluctuates during a Player-Piano's rendition of the perforated roll, there's an added "braking effect" at the end of many long arrangements. This happens when the pneumatic stack is running at FULL POWER, which is often the case for a musical finale. Added 'friction' occurs as the paper passes over the tracker bar, slowing down — and often stalling — the perforated roll.
While the Tempo Lever is part of the accenting operation for pedal players, its dual function for speed recalibration exists on all models, including the electrically-pumped 'reproducing' actions.
The ARTCRAFT Studio uses an old spring-wound Seth Thomas™ metronome for the Interpretive Arranging process, as well as for many "verification" activities, which include checking the tempo norm on an audio recording and matching the playback of a 'test strip' against the Master Roll. After over four decades of roll-making experience, Mr. Henderson finds it difficult to accept it when someone says "That's the way Ferruccio Busoni played LA CAMPANELLA." A good listener has the metronome running in his/her mind, and the Liszt transcription on any player would be 'off' after the second minute, noticeably. One has two responses when confronted with this false performance statement: "PHONY-Busoni!" (which will anger the 'reproducing' piano owner and might destroy a friendship) or "Do you have a rest room?" (or some suitable exit line).
Let's face facts. The Tempo Lever has been added to the pneumatic player for a reason. Its presence eliminates the claim of "record/playback" for the medium, which was often the original selling point. Roll manufacturers rarely took the roll's acceleration into account with their perforated arrangements (as some historical revisions often claim) … and even when crude stepping changes were introduced, to correct this defect, the variables of the roll transport system usually negated these features.
It's no wonder why so many Ampico and Duo-Art expression rolls were weighted-down with "time-wasting" and meaningless arpeggios with broken chords and long pauses. (Armbruster and Susskind rolls are good examples of this kind of arranging.) The idea was to get the listener to forget the tempo, and it works with background music — the industry staple of the 'Twenties. The hammy device has no place in classical music or virtuoso performances, however.
Fortunately, there's a solution to the irritating music roll accelerando. Listen to the performance and reset the Tempo Lever, preferably at logical "musical intervals" which are usually at the end of a major phrase or melodic theme. Personal involvement is the key to any artistic music roll presentation.
The ubiquitous Tempo Lever is the place to begin, when taking control of the musical performance. It's the "baton" for your "orchestra", viz. the player action. Take charge of your Pianola and prepare to enjoy the musical benefits!
Back issues of "The PIANOLA
Vol. I, No. 1 (1-10-98)
Vol I, No. 2 (1-17-98)
Vol. I, No. 4 (2-1-98)
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- L. Douglas Henderson, dba ARTCRAFT
Music Rolls, P.O. Box 295, Wiscasset, Maine 04578 (USA)
Telephone: (207) 882-7420 - E-Mail: email@example.com
A second ARTCRAFT Website? Not really, but a "toe in the water" featuring some basic information has been on the Internet for close to a year. There's a short bio on the business which might be of interest to 'hard-core' ARTCRAFT fans. Check out this URL: http://people.whowhere.com/pages/artcraft (Make sure that "www" isn't in this URL!)
Check out the new 'QUICK LIST' - Now all the available ARTCRAFT titles/composers/prices are in one quick-to-download location. The Duo-Art and Ampico offerings have been completed already. The 88-Note ARTCRAFT Rolls are being posted daily. [QUICK LIST of ARTCRAFT Music Rolls]
LINKS to other Internet Websites