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New versions of old piano rolls restore the sounds of the pop-music revolution


Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1876, but, as I was reminded recently, the first recorded music with mass commercial appeal came not from the record player but from the player piano.

I was struck by this curious fact the other day when I visited a piano dealer who stocks the new Yamaha Disklavier piano -- today's computer-driven descendant of the player piano. A few days later I happened to be in an area record store, where I noticed a slew of recently issued compact discs featuring music originally recorded on piano rolls.

It may seem strange to be witnessing something of a revival of this obsolete medium in our high-tech age. On the other hand, perhaps it is only fitting that the mania for "original instruments" and "authentic performance practices" that has dominated much our musical life for the past two decades should eventually result in the resurrection of an authentic early American instrument and its unique musical heritage.

The heyday of the player piano lasted from around 1900 to the mid-1920s. Though the first reproducing piano appeared in Germany around the turn of the century, the American piano industry, then the largest in the world, brought it to perfection. Within a dozen years, the Aeolian Co.'s Duo Art and the American Piano Co.'s Ampico systems had appeared, along with such lesser names as Universal, Metro-Art, Perfection and Mel-O-Dee.

During that period, the player piano was the center of a wildly successful, boom-or-bust popular music industry, nicknamed Tin Pan Alley, whose rapid expansion in New York City coincided with the development of a new American music that mirrored the massive social changes occurring in the United States at the time.

The genteel, sentimental ballads and stylized waltzes of the Victorian era suddenly gave way to the musical accents of a fresh wave of immigrants from Europe and the influx of Southern blacks to the nation's cities.

The new popular music liberated ordinary citizens to assimilate the seismic transformations taking place. At the same time they offered, under the guise of entertainment, subtle ammunition in the war against Victorian prudery.

George Gershwin and Scott Joplin, the two greatest innovators of the era, both recorded their own compositions, as well as those of others, on piano rolls -- long strips of paper perforated with holes that automatically activated the player piano mechanism.

Between 1915 and 1925, Gershwin recorded more than 130 piano rolls, mostly as a sideline to his job as a song-plugger for the sheet-music publishers of the day. Legend has it that the young Gershwin actually learned to play by slowing down the roll on a player piano at a friend's house and putting his own fingers on the keys as they were depressed by the instrument's mechanism.

Joplin, whose "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) launched the Ragtime Era, probably recorded many of the 50 or so original compositions for piano that he wrote -- including the most famous of all, "The Entertainer." So far, however, only a handful of authenticated piano rolls by him have turned up.

Recently, Nonesuch records issued a two-volume set of new recordings of Gershwin piano rolls, as re-created on a Yamaha Disklavier grand piano. The accompanying notes offer a fascinating insight into how digital technology was put into service resurrecting this nearly forgotten chapter in American musical history.

The original paper rolls were painstakingly converted into computer files that specified the location and length of each hole on the roll. Then a computer programmer wrote a simulation that translated the files into digital language representing the notes, their duration and position in time, as well as their loudness. Finally, the Disklavier piano played Gershwin's rolls from a floppy disk for the CD recording.

The resulting performances have an astonishingly lifelike quality, if the composer himself were sitting in the recording studio. Gershwin was a fabulous musician, and these computer-generated performances capture much of the exuberance as well as the subtleties of phrasing and dynamics that characterized his playing.

One can only hope that Joplin's surviving piano rolls, now available only in poor-quality recordings, eventually will receive the same kind of high-tech refurbishing. Joplin's genius as composer and performer was, if anything, even greater than Gershwin's -- a fact the latter readily conceded when asked about the sources of his inspiration.

Can such re-created performances be considered authentic? Like so many other disputes in the early music debate, this one can not be answered definitively. But certainly any modern pianist who aspires to fulfill the composers' intentions would do well to study carefully the evidence preserved on the only performance documents left behind by these two acknowledged masters.

The heyday of the player piano ended around 1925, when improvements in phonograph sound and the implacable economics of the music business finally caught up with the instrument's inherent limitations.

By then, the development of electrical microphones had enabled recording engineers to capture on discs a significantly wider range of the audio spectrum than previously possible. Moreover, records and record players were much cheaper than pianos, so the market for them suddenly appeared potentially far more lucrative than that for pianos.

Thus the coming-of-age of the phonograph signaled not only the gradual displacement of the piano as a principal indicator of middle-class social status, and of piano playing as the principal form of music-making in middle-class homes, but also the end of a seminal era in indigenous American popular culture.

Ironically, it is only now, thanks to high technology and a newfound appreciation of authenticity in the performance of the music of the past that we are beginning to recognize the richness of that legacy and the magnitude of the contribution of the men who created it.

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