Today's Classical Music Video

Friday, June 17, 2011

Player Pianos, Reproducing Pianos and the Men Who Believe in Them: Paul Robinson in Conversation With Rex Lawson and Denis Hall

Imagine, if you can, what life was like for music-lovers around 1900. There was lots of live music, as there is today, in the concert hall, in the opera house, and in the home. But there was no recorded music. Anyone who wanted to hear music had to go out to a live performance or make music at home, most often on the piano.
Within a few years the first acoustical recordings were made and they caused a sensation. And yet, people with some sense of what music ought to sound like knew that these recordings were mostly awful. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s with the development of the electrical microphone that recordings began to resemble the real thing.
But during the acoustical era, from about 1906 to 1924 there were other options developed for recorded music. The electrical recordings eventually won out but for a period of about 20 years there were some very interesting alternatives. The best of them was the player piano. The idea was to have a pianist record his or her work using a complicated mechanical device, on perforated paper. The resulting “piano rolls” could then be played back on an upright or grand piano equipped with the proper mechanism. These piano rolls themselves had no sound; only instructions for sound. The music was supplied as it would have been in a live performance, by a real piano. At their best piano rolls and reproducing pianos provided excellent performances and then and now were considered far superior to the acoustical recordings of the period.
As a contribution to the history of music and performance, the piano rolls were invaluable. They captured performances by some of the greatest pianists and composers of the period including Debussy, Granados, Grieg, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Paderewski.
It should be emphasized that some player players were designed not as automatic reproducing instruments but as interactive devices. That is to say, the piano rolls for such instruments were simply the basic elements of a performance and the "interpretation" was left to the "pianolist". The pianolist would operate a system of levers and pedals to control tempo and volume. Rex Lawson is the best-known pianolist in the world today and has often appeared in concert with leading orchestras.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss these matters with two of the world’s foremost experts on the subject: the afore-mentioned Rex Lawson and Denis Hall. They were visiting Austin, Texas, and I spoke with them at the home of Ken Caswell, a local authority on player pianos. This video includes the first part of our conversation. The music heard at the beginning of the interview is Grieg's Wedding Day at Troldhaugen played by the composer on a piano roll made in 1906.
The rest of my interview with Lawson and Hall will be posted at a later date on the La Scena Musicale website. Some fine examples of Denis Hall's work can be found on a CD titled Ignace Jan Paderewski in Recital (Aeolia 2002). To learn more about player pianos visit
Paul E. Robinson



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