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Book Review

Inventing Entertainment

Inventing Entertainment by Dolan

The Player Piano and the Origins of an American Musical Industry

Brian Dolan
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 2009. 232 pages.
ISBN-10: 0742561275
ISBN-13: 978-0742561274
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Ghosts in the machine.

I've been fascinated with player pianos and musical automata since I was a kid, especially when I can see the innards in operation. Similar feelings occur when I see an electric home organ, like a Hammond or an Allen, although here the fascination has worn off because of the rise of the synthesizer-sampler keyboard. As a child, I mistakenly thought the only music that emanated from the player piano consisted of rags and over-ornate Gay Nineties ballads, but in reality the market was far more diverse. By the way, "player piano" covers a wide range of instruments with different technologies and different abilities – from the Aeolian pianola, to the Duo-Art, the Ampico, the Story & Clark, and, my favorite, the Welte-Mignon. This, however, merely includes only those manufacturers and technologies I've ever read anything about. This book tells me there were at least fifty companies in the United States alone.

First off, I should tell you I'm a rank outsider. I've never owned a piano roll, let alone a piano that could play it. I only rarely hear the music in the presence of a machine (usually, I listen to a CD). I'm interested mainly in two little corners of the repertoire: composers playing their own works and classic rags; classical works which employ the player piano. I know very little about the technology. I can't talk knowledgeably about almost anything having to do with them – models, engineering, manufacturers of machines and rolls, or the creative cadre that "finished" the rolls for publication and sale. I haven't the fire of a real enthusiast.

That's why I'm grateful for this book. Brian Dolan, an historian (and the son of the current owner of the QRS company, maker of piano rolls), has provided not exactly a history, but a meditation that only an historian could have written. If you want a technical disquisition on the difference between a Duo-Art and a Welte-Mignon or a history of the great roll artists and arrangers, read something else.

Dolan puts the reproducing piano (I think the term more accurate than "player piano") in several social contexts. He talks about the changes in the musical audience the technology brought about. The early machines fell, really, into the category of automata, like music-boxes, barrel-organs, mechanical birds, and anthropomorphic "fortune-tellers" and card dealers. They could play one thing, unless you changed a very heavy piece of the innards. They couldn't even use the entire range of the keyboard. For me, the great revolution was the player piano that followed the instructions on a paper roll. All at once, a single instrument had a repertoire easily changeable at the user's whim, and a roll held more music than a barrel or cylinder. From the player roll, it's a series of very short steps to the phonograph record, the tape player, the LP, the CD, and the DVD. The changes this brought forth had its good and bad sides.

Previous audiences had to either make music on their own (which required the hard acquisition of special skills) or go to a specific venue to hear whatever the artists cared to perform. Furthermore, not every person had access to a symphony orchestra or to an opera house. The player piano put large classical works within the reach of unskilled or "culturally disadvantaged" listeners. To some extent, its precision also changed listener expectations of execution standards. If you could hear Rachmaninoff whenever you wanted (whether or not he was actually in the room), you might not be satisfied with Aunt Louise or Uncle Sidney's rendition of, say, Chopin. Furthermore, those who didn't have an Aunt Louise or an Uncle Sidney got to hear Chopin. The opportunities for musical literacy in both classical and popular repertoire increased. The success of ragtime (and thus eventually jazz) was certainly aided by the craze for piano rolls and vice versa. Also, in rare instances, the player piano actually taught people how to play without the rolls. Fats Waller and others, for example, started to learn piano by covering the keys the mechanism pressed.

However, the player piano also inaugurated the rise of the passive listener, who became exclusively a consumer, rather than a performer. This begins a trend still largely with us today, although you could argue that the electric guitar and the synthesizer keyboard have gotten a number of kids playing. I stress this because an exclusive consumer culture is largely an insecure or intellectually unadventurous one. With the increased dependence on the professional musician, the listener has lost his more direct link with a composer through performance. As any active chamber-music player or chorister knows, one usually digs into the core of a work more deeply than if one simply listens, just because the sustained work of rehearsal and practice allows one to do so.

Dolan also lets us spend time with the player-piano enthusiasts. Apparently, some object to his treatment, which they perceive as depicting them as kooks. I really didn't get this from Dolan, who writes about them with affectionate good humor, mostly as a way of letting an outsider into their world. They are certainly eccentrics in the sense that the culture at large doesn't share their passion, and (let's face it) you have to be more than a little starry-eyed (and well-off) to amass collections of reproducing pianos, as some of them have. Just finding the dedicated space for such a collection is no small chore (some have kicked their cars out of the garage). These things obviously take up room. It's not like collecting matchbooks.

The sections on the pianists and arrangers – mainly, the African-American players – interested me most. At a time when a Black performer couldn't get onto many stages or into clubs (one reason why so many early Black pianists played in brothels was because they could), making piano rolls became a paying gig, at least, if not a steady living. Moreover, and perhaps more important, middle-class and wealthy households that allowed blacks only in the kitchen or in the yard or for cleaning up, actually had them (by technological proxy) playing in the parlor – a phalanx of Ralph Ellison's invisible men. J. Lawrence Cook, a pianist, saw the possibilities of reliable work in "arranging and editing" the rolls. He learned to punch the rolls by hand, and his "home-made" rolls often sounded better than the commercial product put out by the big publishers. Once they found out about Cook, QRS quickly hired him.

One of Cook's great discoveries was the idea of "arranging" and editing rolls other pianists had played. He not only cleaned things up but added little fillips of his own. Player pianos raised the public standard of rhythmic and pitch precision. You might not be getting Fats Waller "as he himself played it," and that was just fine with Waller, especially since Cook, an inventive musician with great taste, made Waller even better. In effect, Cook became the first "record producer."

Dolan's more-or-less incidental comments on the nature of history are just lagniappe. At some level, history comes down to the preservation of personal memory. The reproducing piano brings many back to their childhoods and to recollections of their parents and grandparents. In many cases, it's not exactly the distance between an observer and a sepia photograph, since so many actually pumped pedals or loaded rolls themselves. The reproducing piano wasn't simply a triumph of mechanical ingenuity, a commercial blockbuster, and an engine of social change. It also connected, in an emotional way, people to their families and to their families' history. History, it turns out, is not just Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but the stuff that we do and that happens to us and ours.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Schwartz.