t byfield on Wed, 5 Mar 2003 02:07:07 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> william gaddis: player pianos, rise and fall of

if ever there was a candidate for the dead media list, this little essay
is it; but that list seems, if not to be deadm, at least to be sleeping.
and, anyway, kontext is king -- and maybe nettime is a better, more
refractory home for it after all.


"Stop Player. Joke No. 4" [1951]
William Gaddis

Selling player pianos to Americans in 1912 was not a difficult task. There
was a place for everyone in this brave new world, where the player offered
an answer to some of America's most persistent wants: the opportunity to
participate in something which asked little understanding; the pleasure of
creating without work, practice, or the taking of time; and the
manifestation of talent where there was none.

Age was no hindrance to success. A child in Seattle who had spent his full
five years among players was an expert demonstrator.

A number of magazines devoted to the player -- many of them put out by the
manufacturers themselves -- were stolidly enough written to convince any
player owner that his was the most important instrument in the history of
music and that he was its master. The _Presto Buyers' Guide_ kept him up
on new developments and new rolls, and the _Player_ magazine threatened to
educate him to his machine.

One of its, regular columns was "Music Roll Thematics," reproducing the
patterns of various groups of holes from familiar classic rolls, and
tossing in ten good reasons why they were im portant, as well as a story
of the composition. The idea was to read the groups of perforations while
playing the roll, as the professional musician reads notes; and music
presented in these new working clothes became something which was perhaps
tangible after all.

Player programs were suggested for less imaginative owners, who soon
learned not to compromise themselves artistically in an evening's
entertainment by mixing such popular works as Swift's _Rag Medley No. 8_
and Gottschalk's _The Dying Poet_ with light opera classics from Van
Alsteyne's _Girlies_ or Karl Hoschna's _Madame Sherry_.

The industry, probably largely out of respect, built 10,000 grands in
1914, but out of the 325,000 total, 80,000 were player pianos. Piano
repairmen, who had started their vocation with nothing to fear from the
regularities of the pianoforte, were encouraged with books, folders, and
diagrams explaining the wonders of pneumatics. That year the Danquard
Player Action School opened in New York, giving exhaustive courses in
player mechanics, and there were even a few correspondence schools
peddling the new profession.

The roll industry had been a necessary accomplice throughout, but it had
an attraction all its own. The notion of transforming any piece of music,
from a ditty to a concerto, into an anonymous series of holes on a blank
paper roll was as exciting for some as cuneiform investigation. The roll
industry grew as fast as the player world would permit, though some player
companies kept the business in the family and cut their own rolls. Such
artists as Robert Wornum and Emanuel Moor were to be found cutting
"records" for Aeolian, Ampico, and Welte-Mignon. The smallest Leabarjan
perforator cost $35, and with it one could make one's own paper music. One
man patented an oilcloth roll, and another, equally imaginative, settled
down with a punch and a roll of wallpaper.

Most light-minded people turned to the Arto-roll or the Vocalstyle. The
Arto-roll was so named because the space usually left blank at the end
where the roll tapered to the ring was filled with art work and comment.
After a spirited performance of the sextet from _Lucia_, the fugitive
slots rolled out of sight as usual before the spectator's eyes, and he and
anyone else who wanted to crowd around were presented with a chromo of
lolling maidens and a snappy discourse on the tribulations of the heroine.

James Whitcomb Riley bought a player in 1905, and as poetic consequence
the Vocalstyle Company printed up some of his work to be sold and recited
with rolls of their own music in accompaniment. They also produced
one-roll minstrel shows, on which the procession of slots was interrupted
by the words "Stop Player. Joke No. 4." At this point, the jokebook which
came with the roll was opened to Joke No. 4. A proper parlor version of
Mr. Interlocator then opened some such extended discussion as this:

"You say you got a dog that doan' eat meat?"

"Yuphm," a partner answered.

"Why doan' your dog eat no meat?"

"Cuz I doan' give him no meat" -- and the player piano burst out again
over shrieks of parlor laughter. Words to the songs were printed on the
roll, and for wordless sequences such as a soft-shoe dance, encouraging
exclamations were freely supplied:

"Throw sand on the floor and give him room!"

Or, "Conserve shoe leather! Conserve!"

The Age of Gold lasted through 1916, when popular parlor

players were rendering _Ragtime Oriole, Way Down in Borneo-o-o-o_, and
_You're a Dog Gone Daisy Girl_. Talents were being made and recognized.
The makers of a roll called _Posies_ testified, in reference to Dorian
Welch, the composer, "There is a special talent in writing for the player
piano, and but few writers possess it." In addition to Mr. Welch, Paul
Hindemith and Erik Satie directed some of their "special talents" to
player composing, and Satie even cut a few rolls.

The player actually became the biggest factor in the entire music
industry, and. Aeolian's prices on its Orchestrelle ranged from $400 to

More than 200,000 player pianos were built in 1916. They amounted to 65
percent of the total piano production, enough to satisfy the most ardent
fanatic and to warn anyone familiar with business graph curves of the
impending decline and fall.

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