Thus Spake Pianola: Superhuman Music for Player Piano – by Peter Nelson-King

Special thanks to YouTuber “playerpianoJH”!

It’s odd to imagine machines playing music beyond human capabilities before synthetic sound and computers. This of course wasn’t the first time we had performable music played by non-human entities (mechanical orchestras, anyone?), but the whole culture of musique concrète (music that exists as a single “performance” by a machine or recording) developed around tape manipulation and analog synthesizers, and flourished when digital techniques became advanced and accessible (see my previous article on Easley Blackwood for examples of this era). However, there was a remarkable predecessor to this and all electronic music that must be discussed: the player piano. You can probably remember the player piano from period pictures of the late 19th century, a relic of la belle époque, quaint and lacking in depth. While it’s true that the majority of music for the instrument was either transcriptions of popular classical works of the day or forgettable dance music, it contained a secret power. Beginning in the mid-1910’s (with the above piece by Stravinsky) modernist composers started to see the instrument for what it was: a vehicle for superhuman music, unplayable by normal people.

The Three Pieces by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella are a beautiful demonstration of the new capabilities of this mechanical beast. The Prelude features fast chord jumps that would be impossible to play by three people at the speed required, and also has a chord that would require hands as wide as your legs are long to play. The Waltz uses a melody that stretches across several octaves. The ragtime seems more fitting for exploding cars than dancing people, or maybe somebody attempting to swat flies with a refrigerator door. In a way these pieces are musical jokes, because anybody listening to them would scoff at their byzantine player requirements and the loud and abrasive tone of the instrument, which was attractive to composers at the time because of how it fit into the current craze for “grotesque” music. Casella was no stranger to massive stacked chords, either, and these pieces are chock-a-block with gigantic piles of notes. In the same spirit but taking the unplayability (and some would say unlistenability) up a few levels is this absurd piece by Hans Haass, who I had never heard of before finding this piece:

I personally feel that the work is better art if one looks at the piano roll than if they listen to it (I imagined a scenario where Haass glanced at his patterned wallpaper one day and declared “This is the future of music!”). There were many other pieces (all availabe on the same YouTube channel) but it is necessary for us to jump ahead a few decades. Enter Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who had been exiled to Mexico after some time tinkering in the murky waters of modern music. Unsatisfied with musicians’ inability to play his exceedingly difficult music, he discovered the player piano and its ability to play extremely complex rhythms very quickly. He got himself a manual piano roll punching machine so he could make his own pieces, and then proceeded to write some 50 studies for the instrument during the next 40 years, entirely in seclusion in Mexico. When he was rediscovered in the late 70’s he was lauded by the likes of György Ligeti as one of the greatest composers of his time, and it’s pretty hard not to appreciate his work, in its intellectual aspects and its emotional and entertainment qualities. All of them are worth investigating, but here I’m just going to feature my current favorite:

The use of harmony, the captivating and totally original approach to rhythms, and a number of truly miraculous moments make this piece a real joy, and is a great showoff work for the instrument. As the description notes, all modern player piano compositions stem from Nancarrow’s work, and the channel features a number of contemporary works by many interesting composers. Because of the many wonders to behold on this channel (you really should get cracking on the Nancarrow studies) I’ll leave you with a particularly funny piece by virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin that transforms a moldy oldy piano lesson staple into something wholly sinful. Have fun and don’t bang on normal pianos too hard to replicate these works. You might hurt yourself.


1 comment
  1. Mary King said:

    Love this, especially the Nancarrow piece. Now I’m going to pick up the next estate sale/thrift store player piano I find, and start punching papers for it.

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