The "Earwitness" Duo-Art Case

Milking the legacy of DEAD pianists for fame and fortune ... AGAIN!

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If you have been reading through these ARTCRAFT Web pages — or the past decades of printed literature published by me for my music roll enterprises — it shouldn't take long to discover that there's a major schism in the field of music rolls.

The viewpoint I've held, as a Master Roll perforator for 46 years, is the Player-Piano is an arranged music medium: period. Whatever the Pianola or "reproducing" (expression) Player-Piano does is the result of aesthetic decisions — often musical compromises — by an arranger, and that the keyboard pianist has nothing to do with the finished product. For somebody like me, who can discern keyboard attack differences from pianist to pianist ... and music roll performance variables at different previously-established "paper travel" speeds, there is no room for a human pianist in the equation. If a roll succeeds in simulating (i.e., "reproducing") a specific pianist, it is a testament to the artistic skills of a music roll arranger, working with pencils and graph paper, electronic computer equipment — or in my case, one of several antique Leabarjan™ perforators ... and spending hours, days, weeks and sometimes months creating the final product. The finest "reproduction" of a pianist can be just a roll arranger's IMPRESSION of the virtuoso, and nothing more.

There is another attitude, mostly proffered by self-styled experts? in the field of pneumatic players. This is the assumption that the music roll "recreates" the performance of a pianist, and this viewpoiont requires not only great faith in the authenticity of printed labels on the roll boxes ... but a firm belief in the unrestricted (and often outrageous) advertising from the past, when piano factories said anything in order to "dispose of the goods" ... as a Steinway executive wrote to officials at The Aeolian Company in 1910. (See Vol. I, No. 1 of The PIANOLA Quarterly for a transcript of this correspondence.)

It would take too much space here to enumerate all the variables in piano design, player action construction, music roll arranging techniques — and that 'netherworld' of actually "recording" a human pianist. However, the curious individual can easily hear audio recordings on tapes and CD's today, made from wax cylinders, Pathé and Edison discs and standard 78's ... performances of the same material, in many cases, which was offered in the player roll catalogues of the time. These old audio records of deceased pianists, in spite of the low fidelity, preserve the tempi, the pedal shadings, the dynamic structure and the "shape" of the keyboard performances. The old commercial player rolls did not attempt — in most cases — to approximate the keyboard attack of the artists. The goal was to make a pleasant-sounding roll which would sell a piano, equipped with a player action.

Generally speaking, those who give us that "Ghost of Gershwin" or "Hofmann Rediscovered" spiel today are doing so for marketing purposes. Whether it be the sales of MIDI solenoid players, of CD's made from these instruments, or some treasure chest of paper rolls containing "lost" artists' performances, the pitch is remarkably similar each time someone becomes a latter-day Musical Marco Polo.

Below is a posting I sent to the MMD, an Internet player group, concerning the "Earwitness" project — involving "played by Hofmann" rolls on a concert-size Steinway Duo-Art piano, and using a retrofitted player action (not mentioned in the promotional material). Expression rolls, like the Duo-Art line, were arranged for home-sized instruments, not for 9-foot Style "D" grands. You might enjoy reading this posting for the MMD ... and then, at your own risk, try the URL for the "Earwitness" publicity, amazingly still on the Internet after all this time! I've spent my life devoted to the art of improving music roll performance, and when I wish to hear Josef Hofmann, I play tapes of his old audio recordings.

—— L. Douglas Henderson/ARTCRAFT Music Rolls, Wiscasset, Maine (1-3-98)

My Internet letter concerning the "Earwitness" Duo-Art project

From: L. Douglas Henderson[]
Sent: Sunday, March 23, 1997 9:21 PM
To: 'Robbie Rhodes'
Subject: Duo-Art music? on the Internet

Dear Robbie and the MMD readers,

As I've said openly - and in print - for DECADES, "bigger" is not "better" when it comes to 'reproducing' pianos - misnamed "reproducer" by those who confuse the term with Edison cylinder phonograph components.

My 7' Steinway Duo-Art, Style "AR" - sold as 7' by Aeolian! - is really the A-3 model, elongated from 6'5", approximately. As such, and I've listened to it almost daily for close to 38 years now ... going through 4 sets of voiced hammers in the process and much action work. Beautiful-sounding that this instrument is for hand-playing and roll interpretation via the Pianola levers, it is on the CUSP of being "too much" with the commercial Duo-Art expression rolls.

This is understandable, since the Duo-Art with its 16 intensity steps was designed for "HOME USE", meaning uprights up to 56" high and grands up to about 6'. That means that the "OR" Steinway (5'10" stretched to 6'6" for the player) and the Weber "FR" are the MAXIMUM for the range of the expression scores, as perforated by Aeolian. (W. C. Woods - who arranged the expression scores for many classical Duo-Art rolls - owned an "OR", not a stretched "A", "B" or "D".)

Beyond an "OR" instrument the musical 'balance' can suffer, unless one plays 'wimpy' Frank Milne and/or Robert Armbruster rolls, which didn't - in later years - use the entire range of the instrument.

The "B"-size (about 8') and "DR" (9' elongated to 9'6" for the player action) grands were too large to play the published rolls correctly. This is why Aeolian did 1 of 2 things when presenting them in public demonstrations: a) make entirely DIFFERENT ROLLS which catered to the needs of the larger size pianos .... or b) hand-edit the commercial rolls with pen-knives, changing expression dynamics, adding hammer rail lifts (for soft pedal) and clipping the excessive sustaining pedal scores that marred most of the classical commercial releases by the company. [Naturally, I have both types of SPECIAL ROLLS in my collection, so know what I'm talking about in this department.]

When I learned that a "DR" was going to have a RETROFIT player action added and perform commercial "played by Hofmann" rolls (some 100% mathematical in nature - and visibly so, without having to play them!), I let it be known in the Pianola field that musical disaster lay ahead. If you altered the rolls for the Steinway "DR" then the alleged artist's performance? would be changed. If you played the rolls "as is" ... it would be LOUD-LOUD-LOUD and without any musical subtlety.

The radio program called "Earwitness" - featuring this retrofit "DR" - now has a Web page, and you can listen to a ghastly interpretation of Paderewski's CAPRICE in G, Op. 14, No. 3 - Duo-Art Roll #6558 (1922) ... and the sound is as colourless and wretched as my predications stated. The 'solo' system (called the Themodist) is blurred under the fast cascades of LOUD-LOUD notes, and the expression is stuck in the fortissimo range.

If you like Glenn Gould's playing (at louder-than-normal) volume ... then this CAPRICE in G roll will be for you, of course.

Here's the Web page: <>. Be sure to listen to the music? before reading the text which has more false claims and errors than anything I've seen in recent times. (You might get nauseous if you wade around in the text while the music? is playing.)

Dale Lawrence, one of the founders of AMICA [a player club], called me the other day about the current "DR" recording hype, and followed up with a P.O. letter saying "Where do these people get so many unsubstantiated claims?" (I hadn't heard the sledge-hammer reproduction of "Paderewski" at that point, however.)

False history, unpleasant music, questionable testimonials and the promise of CD's (i.e. money to be made by "milking the Aeolian legacy") are not needed at this point in history. The Pianola is at its best when playing arrangements CREATED FOR THE MEDIUM of the pneumatic player ... and fails miserably when trying to "reproduce" a keyboard artist note-for-note.

"DR" Steinways were made for public demonstrations ... using special rolls not available to the public. Then - after a concert tour, the players were often removed and the instruments were usually sold off to a school or institution. They weren't meant to be the medium of playing commercial expression rolls. Or, they were placed in movie palace lobbies and rattled muted expression medleys of the Milne-Armbruster variety ... being available for hand playing when a virtuoso artist was on the scene. Large grand pianos weren't supposed to be used in connection with the Duo-Art library of rolls for the general public.

Now - a lever-controlled (electric) Steinway Duo-Art "DR" or a pedal-operated Steinway Grand Pianola, Style "D" is something else. [Aeolian called the former "The Duo-Art as a Pianola" in their terminolgy.] Like the keyboard pianist, the concert Pianolist can adjust the dynamics and pedal effects to fit the instrument and the acoustics of the hall.


I taped this 'Brand-X' travesty of the roll #6558 made for home-size Duo-Art players. There's a special "no-record" icon on the RealAudio downloading operation ... but ... if you tap into the speakers of your computer, it's just another avenue for making an analogue copy. Believe me, this music is so crass and LOUD-LOUD-LOUD that it doesn't matter whether it's in digital or analogue, stereo or mono (as on the Internet). Awful is awful.

If you have Duo-Art roll #6558, play it against your downloaded Cassette copy. The differences will be obvious after only a few seconds of playing. Be it a Stroud upright, a Steck grand, a Steinway "XR" or "OR" or anything in-between, your piano - even if in need of some service - will outperform what you've just heard on the Internet.

That's the viewpoint from my Studio. If you "know" the expression score of this Duo-Art roll, the Internet sample of CAPRICE in G says it all.

I think my voice in the woods should be published in the Mech. Music Digest as the media hype for this exaggerated and flawed Duo-Art "DR" series has already begun. Beyond the second-rate musical performances, the premise of presenting "lost" pianists is a failure equal to recent Disklavier attempts with Gershwin's music.

Thanks for publishing this posting as submitted, Robbie.

(signed) Douglas

PS: Just as I was writing this, Tim Wallace - a concert pianist in Maine - dropped by the Studio to visit with Lois Konvalinka. I whipped out my Internet tape of the CAPRICE in G ... and he asked me to turn off the recording after only a few seconds. "That's terrible," he said. "It has no expression and doesn't sound human." (Mr. Wallace also accompanies the Joffrey Ballet when they rehearse in Texas, and composes original music for the piano.)

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