The Friday Fillip

Today’s fillip merely pokes a stick — well, a baton, really — at a very large and fabulous creature, one that would take all the Fridays in an era to get to know properly, if such were ever really possible. I’ve touched on music before, that non-verbal language that satisfies as well as, or better than, the abecedarian kind. Today I want to play a bit with what I’m calling “the player and the piano,” though, these fillips being the associative rambles that they are, I’ll go beyond even that general limit.

What got me going this time was a TED lecture by a guy named John Q. Walker, an entrepreneur whose aim is to use technology to recreate the great piano performances of masters of that instrument. He does this, as the video shows you, by pulling the data out of existing recordings that isolate, analyse and code the nuances unique to a performer — the pauses, the force with which a key is struck, the use of pedals, etc. This data is then worked into a program that is played by a computer driving a real grand piano, to reproduce as nearly as possible — and live — the performance. In the video he uses as examples performances by Glenn Gould and Art Tatum. Moreover, the program can be tweaked so that subtle alterations are introduced, rendering Gould’s playing of a piece more “mellow” perhaps.

Of course, we’ve been here before — sort of. I remember many years ago hearing a recording of Rachmaninoff playing one of his own pieces, or, rather, a piano roll “recorded” by Rachmaninoff, causing a player piano to recreate his performance. (He himself was impressed: he told Ampico, the piano roll folks who persuaded him to try, “Gentleman – I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play!.”) Alas, I can’t find even a snippet of a recording available in MP3 to let you hear how uncanny it is to have 1910 transmuted to the present with perfect clarity via a tricked out Boesendorfer. (If anyone has a clip to share, let us know.)

But, if we take the concept of “player” one remove further, I can let you hear all manner of old piano pieces originally recorded onto piano rolls but now transcribed for and played by a MIDI grand piano (likely) built right into your computer’s sound card. In other words, these are not sound files but files of instructions to that player within your own automaton. Terry Smythe, who happens to be Canadian, is involved in a project to rescue and archive old and often crumbling piano rolls. He and others do this by scanning the rolls into computers and then converting that visual information into .MID, or MIDI files which a sound card can play. MIDI files usually produce a wretched imitation of a musical insrument, however, the grand piano setting is suprisingly good, considering. Smythe has thousand of these files available for you to download, which makes a fascinating trove of old and nearly forgotten tunes from way back when. Have a listen to “Oh! Harold” or “Johnny’s in Town.”

Having sublimated the piano completely and the human player almost completely, we could go on to explore how contemporary music is in fact made without either player or instrument. Curiously, my bridge there would be a software company called Cakewalk, curious because the “cake walk” was one of the classic piano genres that got transcribed on rolls and and wax cylinders — and about which there’s some controversy because of its association with slavery in the U.S. (see our own Ted Tjaden’s essay on the subject). But I’ll leave you to the tender mercies of a young music producer who talks on YouTube about Cakewalk’s products and gives you a good sense of what is now possible, indeed normal.


  1. Hello Simon,

    There is much more to this!

    These are not “player” pianos, these are reproducing pianos, because they reproduce the interpretation of the artist. Player pianos have no way to play the expression of the music. It is all one volume, one level of accentuation. That’s what made the reproducers unique and the top of their class.

    There were 3 big names: Ampico, DuoArt and Welte Mignon plus a few others. Many of the piano rolls for these are actually available as new recuts by a variety of manufacturers, using the originals as templates. And there are plenty of us out here who have original rolls that are in fine condition and we are preserving them and using them on our fully functioning pianos.

    YouTube has lots of videos people have taken of their pianos playing these rolls. You can “hear” Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff. Some of the pianos aren’t in tune and the expression system may need some work…so it isn’t always the best representation of what the reproducing piano is capable of, but you’ll get the idea.

    AMICA (Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors’ Association) is a great source for more information.

    Another interesting twist on the reproducing piano is Colin Nancarrow – whose compositions were so complex that he ended up intentionally composing for the reproducing piano instead of the human.

    (1929 Knabe Ampico B)

  2. Thanks, Ann, for pointing this out and for giving us the AMICA lead.