The PIANOLA News

Information for Player and 'Reproducing' Piano enthusiasts
from
The ARTCRAFT Studio in Maine

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"THE PIANOLA NEWS" Monday: February 16, 1998 - Vol. I, No. 6
[Updated Weekly]


"The END of the Music Roll?"
or
'HOKUM' Rides the Range!

Who would have thought that a printed magazine ostensibly devoted to MECHANICAL music instruments would publish a display advertisement with this headline: "The End of the Music Roll!"??

Such an incident happened, however. The music box club (MBSI) published an ad with that title in their January 1998 issue! It would not surprise ARTCRAFT Music Rolls if a similar promotion is destined appear in the journal for AMICA the international player club. (What is advertised in one club periodical usually spills over into the other club magazine.)

Both organizations have been something like the proverbial lambs being led to slaughter ever since the onslaught of MIDI solenoid computer players began in the mid-'Eighties,. Instead of really listening to these alleged rivals of the pneumatic Player-Piano and then voicing some legitimate concerns, the powers-that-be welcomed the MIDI 'electronics group' into their fold, often giving selected promoters an open podium at their annual conventions. The prevailing attitude was simply, "This is the future and I guess we'll have to accept it."

Oh, really?

Would a calligraphy association invite the felt-tip marker crowd to speak and tell the fountain pen users that ballpoints and throw-away 'Bic' instruments were "the future"? Would a group of wooden sailing boat enthusiasts welcome Jet-Ski owners, and allow them define the horizons of their chosen interest? We all know that the horse gave way to the gasoline automobile, but would today's "carriage riding" associations welcome speeches and blatant propaganda from drag-strip racers and 'hot rod' owners? Hardly.

Ten years ago, Mr. Henderson (the ARTCRAFT Rolls arranger), saw the electronic player industry as the musical threat it came to be. After all, once somebody had spent a small fortune on a MIDI computer piano it would not be likely that the person would start from scratch a second time, switching over to pneumatics and paper rolls. The musical boredom inherent in computer players would drive many Disklavier customers into another hobby entirely. (Even in hotel lobbies, where the solenoid MIDI player is often placed, there is a "short life" with these instruments. Generally speaking, after the novelty of the 'ghost' piano effect wears off, the employees keep turning the bland performance sound DOWN and eventually unplug the mechanism entirely. Few MIDI players remain in the spotlight for more than a several months' time, as players. As pianos, of course, they continue to be used whenever the keyboard talent is present.)

Actually, the current campaign is not for a solenoid computer player of the Disklavier sort, when it comes to the current "End of the Music Roll!" campaign. This is a revival of the solenoids-operating-valves principle which allowed grand pianos to play from Wurlitzer theatre organ consoles and the roll-changing, remote control players of the Duo-Art 'Concertola' kind. Units of the electro-pneumatic variety were frequently attached to pipe organs and conventional grand pianos. What's MIDI in the currently advertised device is the "scanning" of the old perforated rolls. This is the computer information that operates the conventional Player-Piano valve mechanisms, which are under vacuum.

We mildly applaud the "End of the Music Roll!" people for using pneumatics as the striking force for mechanical pianos here. Not only did it work satisfactorily decades ago with Kimball, Welte, Wurlitzer and Aeolian ... but a German university recently built a ROLL-PLAYING upright player which used electro-pneumatic valves, thereby preserving the "striking integrity" of partial vacuum (as in a Pianola) over the sloppy, erratic and weird striking inherent in solenoids (as with the Diskalvier and other computer player actions in the MIDI player field).

Electro-magnetics (i.e. solenoids) are [pardon our French] a lousy method for operating piano keys! The human finger and the pneumatic striker of the Player-Piano BEGIN the stroke with FULL POWER, and of course the finger has far more flexibility (which is why "recording a live pianist" is an all-around failure for the perforated music roll medium). Sluggish solenoids, by comparison, DEVELOP their power DURING the stroke certainly not the way a human finger or a pneumatic striker operates. The "battering ram" method of activating piano keys is third-rate musically. This accounts for the "sameness" and poor musical results when music rolls are converted into MIDI information and fed into a computer that operates an acoustic pianoforte action. (Much of the "digital information stream" is skipped in the process, so if one "knows the roll", the Disklavier or Pianocorder, etc., is flawed from the outset.)

Now let's fast-forward to the "End of the Music Roll!" product of 1998, called "TBI" or "Tracker Bar Interface". (We liked the Welte 'Musicale' and Duo-Art 'Concertola' trade names better, from the late 1920's and early 1930's.) The electro-magnet system which triggers pneumatics relies on MIDI, so the 'source' material will be poor from the start. MIDI scanning can do only one thing at a time, which translates into broken chords and octaves that are NOT "in unison" (due to the serial nature of the MIDI computer here). Slushy chords are played instead of precise ones by the pianist and/or the pneumatic player! An instrument which can't play octaves "together" in unison (a basic requirement for ANY valid musical design) constitutes a major performance failure down the line. When solenoids are called upon to produce sharp staccato effects especially at low volume levels the results are generally dismal as well.

A number of years ago, Mr. Henderson visited Bill Wherry in Oakland, California. He had a Steinway "OR" connected to a Duo-Art 'Concertola' the complicated unit which changed rolls and played them by remote control. Mr. Wherry played two versions of the same Frank Milne arrangement for the Duo-Art, both Pauline Alpert "fakes", but pleasant music. The 'Concertola' sent its information to a special assembly, not too different in principle to the "TBI" gadget mentioned above, and this caused the Duo-Art to perform and rather blandly, but then the 'Concertola' was designed for the background music market in those times. Next, Bill Wherry switched from his 'Concertola' player console converter to the tracker bar in his "OR" piano. The second playing of the identical selection began ... only from the Steinway's spoolbox instead of from a 'ferris wheel' roll changer away from the piano. Suddenly the music was a few shades BRIGHTER and the expression had a little more life. Had the back-to-back demonstration featured ARTCRAFT Interpretive Arrangements with rapid dynamic shifts for the Duo-Art mechanism and sprightly staccato effects the 'Concertola' would have come across as a "piano bar" performance after the conventional Pianola had offered the listener a virtuoso tour de force! The 'Concertola' owner commented to Mr. Henderson, privately, that the staccato and expression were muted when rolls were subjected to the delay and interference of the electro-pneumatic mechanism. In other words, the less that existed between the paper roll and the striking pneumatics, the better was the musical performance! His 'Concertola' was a complicated, noisy and musically second-tier method of playing expression rolls, and that's probably one of the reasons beyond the high cost in 1930 that the product was a failure at Aeolian Hall. A rich musician could "hear the difference" between a standard Pianola and the electro-pneumatic roll mechanism. An ordinary person couldn't afford the 'Concertola' and would be happy with an Atwater-Kent radio or Capehart automatic record changer of the day.

Still, the MIDI promotions always attack the ubiquitous Player-Piano and its related instruments. This type of negativity, we feel, is not only tasteless ... but many of the claims are completely false when held under intelligent scrutiny.

Let's review some of the points in a "TBI" bulletin of recent date, and published in an Internet newsletter announcement for MECHANICAL musical instrument enthusiasts. (We highlight the word "mechanical" since it's our opinion that MIDI, synthesizers and solenoid-operated products really belong in some "electronics" department, and not in a forum for those who enjoy perforated rolls and the pneumatic players which use them.)

Display ad claim: "Plays instruments MUCH BETTER than rolls can". Wrong: MIDI is involved ... and that means erratic striking and octaves which aren't struck in unsion ... a musical crime for those with astute listening abilities;

"Stop bothering with rolls" The audio-visual aspect of rolls has an appeal for most Pianola owners: tightening the paper, seeing the chords as they pass over the tracker bar, rewinding the completed selection and returning it to its special box. (Those desiring detached performances can always play tapes or CD's or the FM radio today ... and wouldn't be using an audio-visual participative instrument like the pneumatic player!)

One of the promoters writes in his on-line announcement: "Some of us concluded that pneumatic pianos offer better performance and would be ideally equipped with electronic control..." "Some of us?" ALL LISTENERS should instantly notice that pneumatics strike with more precision than electro-magnets ever will! What qualified group is constituted here?

For those who enjoy the PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT and the VISUAL NATURE of the perforated music roll, the future plans for "TBI" to include a video display to "show words and expression lines" is nothing short of ridiculous. Whoopee! A Sony Trinitron monitor sitting on one's Knabe upright awaits the purchaser of this electro-pneumatic equipment!

The text of the current "End of the Music Roll!" campaign which has really infuriated music roll collectors are the following two paragraphs, which we will quote in their entirety and without interruptive commentary:

"Scanned music rolls can be corrected for a myriad of errors due to roll warpage, expansion and contraction due to climatic variations, perforator wear and other defects, editing carelessness and other clearly mathematically detectable problems. Therefore, when scanned and edited competently and meticulously, they have the potential to play far, far better than they ever did in paper form.

"The wasted time and bother occasioned by music rolls: roll damage, roll storage, rewinding of rolls, alignment of the music sheet to the flanges before using, tracking problems, dust and punchings from rolls being sucked into the bleeds, spoiling the mood of the music while rolls rewind, the heartbreak of watching cherished rolls disintegrate from age, etc. ... All of this we happily consign to the ash-heap of history. But the joy music rolls bring to us through their music: this we shall multiply, disseminate and secure forever.
"

The "ash-heap of history" for player rolls? Perforated rolls can be 'read', studied, copied and even 'Xeroxed' for future use. (Rolls I and II of BALLET MÉCANIQUE by ARTCRAFT were arranged from scratch by 'reading' facsimile copies of the botched Pleyel original rolls not by studying sheet music! Roll III was created from a combination of 'reading' the original French roll and a copy of the printed score. Every duplicated Set of 3 rolls is then edited against the composer's own handwritten manuscript for the Pleyel piano factory. All this musical information is VISUAL ... and that's why it continues to communicate with us decades later.)

Magnetic digital musical information is first to reach the land fill. There, it's stacked upon other electronic wonders which have vanished from the scene, from the Solovox and Novachord to the Lowery Organo.

We wish that the promoters of MIDI players for pianos and now the MIDI-controlled electro-pneumatic "TBI" revival of the 'Concertola' concept would stick to the essentials of truth. George Gershwin didn't make the rolls that rattle away in bowdlerized form on Disklavier pianos, and the electronic action doesn't play this FAKE-Gershwin as well as the Pianolas did with their original paper rolls. Similarly, with MIDI as the musical source for the add-on "TBI" product, precisioned playing goes out the windows before the system introduces its performance delay. Complicated isn't better.

Were MIDI and electronic players offered as a medium providing constant tempo [compared to rolls], longer-playing time [over paper rolls] and something "cheaper to install", that would be enough.

It's that "better than pneumatics" attitude which inflames so many collectors these days.

As we stated at the start of this text, the MIDI claims and promotions come as no surprise when one has been in this niche field for four decades. That the officers of the two collectors' clubs never "saw the light" early-on is the tragedy here. Those with MIDI, solenoids and computer players should have been told to start their own organizations YEARS and YEARS ago!

Negavity sold pianos in the days before radios and automobiles became the national interest. Today, pianos are purchased for purely musical reasons ... and players are an expansion of that initial sale. We hope that purveyors of electronic "replacements" for the genuine pneumatic Pianola curtail their hype, as it doesn't attract the new generation.

The best way to combat the slush-a-matic performances of MIDI/solenoid players is to expose the public to crisp, fiery and virtuoso perforated roll performances. Given the excitement of select paper rolls, unsolicited applause is certain to follow ... and the MIDI player is just something from which the public 'walks away', after a few minutes of lackluster piano playing.

Perhaps there's a reader on the Internet who can get the ball rolling to 'separate' these 2 fields: paper rolls and MIDI music.

Mr. Henderson has been working on the Encyclopaedia Britannica for some time to drop the Disklavier (by trade name) as the "ultimate" player development. The earlier Boesendorfer SE if solenoid-striking actions "have" to be listed under Player-Pianos should get the credit ... but ideally all of these computer products belong in some electronic section of that reference work.

When all is said and done, the INTERACTION with the perforated roll is where the fascination and charm lie in the mechanical piano field. There's no need to tear down the very thing which attracts the public to pneumatic players in the first place. As for the "heartbreak of watching cherished rolls disintegrate" we believe that the "heartbreak of psoriasis" (from which that remark probably originated!) to be of more concern! Or, as one Mass. collector wrote in response to that "End of the Music Roll!" text "the heartbreak of fried chips" (referring to the breakdown of electronic components in the MIDI solenoid players).


Visualizing MUSICAL STRUCTURE
for exciting Pianola presentations

The Pianola is so beguiling for those desiring "instant music" that it's all too easy to insert a roll and then "pedal away". While the basic listening experience yields a form of gratification, it's not a lasting one. This is due to the fact that MUSICAL STRUCTURE must receive the Player-Pianist's concentration in order to extract the MAXIMUM content from any perforated paper roll. Attention to the construction of the musical arrangement is where performance artistry lies. If one ignores the musical layout, then the defects in commercial rolls rise to the surface, most notably "repeating passages" and "homogeneous" (same length) perforations two elements which produce that repetitious, droning effect of player rolls.

Generally speaking, most 'older' popular music presents a series of contrasting themes, A - B - A (reprise) - C (or Trio, in another key). Whatever the commercial roll, you can be sure there's a specific pattern for the perforated arrangement ... and you should make it a point to keep WHERE YOU ARE in the performance IN YOUR MIND at all times. Naturally, the more you replay a favourite roll, the more you'll discover the delights of Introductions, Bridges, Interludes and the all-essential Coda (or finale). When playing a perforated roll, remember that most of the content has been previously decided by the Arranger. Your duty is to elicit dynamic and tempo effects from the material provided, adding the subtlety of pedal shadings when the performance calls for this extra musical touch. Naturally, only YOU know YOUR PIANO ... and that's why it's so important to recognize the structure, in order to build to a memorable climax (or fade away into the ether on some types of music such as Debussy's CLAIR DE LUNE).

Many commercial rolls follow a stock pattern: Introduction, Verse, Chorus, Verse reprise, Chorus reprise ending with a final Chorus (often a variation) "one octave higher".

The more you concentrate on the rolls you perform repeatedly, the easier it will be to absorb the musical craftsmanship. If you are, say, in the "B-Theme", perhaps it should be just a bit softer and a tad slower than the dramatic "A-Theme" opening. However, you might decide to hold back on the Pianola's dynamic resources for the "A" melody will repeat again, and you should inject something NEW into its recapitulation.

Concentrating on phrases, and where they begin and end is another facet of artistic manipulation of the Player-Piano. Many a 'Model B' Ampico expression roll, created on graph paper originally, benefits from a tasteful ritardando at the end of a major section of the music ... and also a slight accelerando at the conclusion of the arrangement.

There are no set rules for "learning the roll", which for the Pianolist means a) knowing something about the music itself and b) how it was perforated for Player-Piano performance.

If you study the moving rolls and LISTEN to your performance results, you are bound to pick up the elements of musical construction. From that point on you are miles ahead of the "sit and pedal" operator of mechanical player instruments. We encourage you to experiment musically, as the occasion arises. Remember that the player action furnishes "technique" and that the perforated roll is an "arranged score" ... but it requires YOU, as the "musician", to complete the performance circle.

Good luck!


Back issues of "The PIANOLA News"
Vol. I, No. 1 (1-10-98)
Vol I, No. 2 (1-17-98)
Vol. I, No. 3 (1-25-98)
Vol. I, No. 4 (2-1-98)
Vol. I, No. 5 (2-8-98)
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[Original announcement for 'The PIANOLA News': 12-31-97]


- L. Douglas Henderson, dba ARTCRAFT Music Rolls, P.O. Box 295, Wiscasset, Maine 04578 (USA)
Telephone:
(207) 882-7420 - E-Mail: artcraft@wiscasset.net


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!)


LINKS to other Internet Websites