May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
There is an extensive literature on the player piano, and a good place to start seeking it out is the Vestal Press (P.O. Box 97, Vestal, NY 13850; 607-797-4872). Vestal not only offers a comprehensive line of books on the subject but sells piano rolls and related items and is the publisher of Harvey Roehl’s Player Piano Treasury and Q. David Bowers’s fine Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments .
There are a good many recordings of piano rolls available—especially of the early ragtime and jazz pianists, much of whose work is available in no other form. There is something haunting in hearing, say, Scott Joplin playing his own rags, despite the rather stiff tempo imposed by the machine. The limitations are far less evident in the more sophisticated Duo-Art recordings, although sometimes the artists were ill served by the people who made their rolls. Joseph Fox writes, “The perforators added their own touches, and the trademark of the player piano: a thrumming sound made by a series of perforations that caused a note to be repeated far more rapidly than any pianist could manage.” On the other hand, piano rolls sometimes can bring us miraculously close to the performers who made them. Says Fox of the Columbia Records release of Rhapsody in Blue (M 34205): “Gershwin recorded his Rhapsody on two Aeolian Duo-Art rolls, playing both the piano solo part and a piano reduction of the orchestral part. For this recording, the orchestral part was taped over so only the piano solo was left. The score used for the accompanying jazz band is the original one arranged by Perde Grofé for Paul Whiteman’s band. The result is very likely a near-perfect replica of the original performance at its 1924 premiere.”
Finally, because any good idea comes around again and again, as we go to press the Yamaha company is preparing to introduce in America its Disklavier Model MX100A—an upright piano outfitted to take a micro floppy disk. The keyboard is hooked up to fiber-optic sensors that determine the exact amount of time that elapses during each strike of a key. The Disklavier records whatever is played on it exactly , and reproduces it perfectly. Eventually, Yamaha will have eleven different collections of music to choose from, ranging from classical to—appropriately—“yesteryear.” Aeolian’s Edwin Votey might have been baffled by the technology, but he would have had no trouble with the basic idea.