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Gerald Carpenter: UCSB Concerts Strike Player Pianos Off the Rolls

Primavera Festival performances key up a connection between musical eras

Two concerts, nominally a part of UCSB’s Primavera Festival, but just as interesting outside that context, will take place Monday and April 13. Called “Pianomatic Springs I” and “Pianomatic Springs II,” respectively, both concerts will feature new music for the player piano and both will start at 7 p.m., in Karl Geiringer Hall (Music 1250).

“Pianomatic Springs I” will include music by established composers such as Seth Horvitz, Clarence Barlow (Corwin Chair of Composition), Conlon Nancarrow, Frederic Rzewski and James Tenney.

The felted fingers of a Welte-Mignon 'Vorsetzer' are poised to play a Ravel piece just like he did.
The felted fingers of a Welte-Mignon “Vorsetzer” are poised to play a Ravel piece just like he did.

“Pianomatic Springs II” will contain music composed for the same instrument by UCSB composition students Brian Alexander, Joann Cho, Joshua Dickinson, Anthony Garcia, David Gordon, Brian Hansen, Joel Hunt, Kiyomitsu Odai, Luke Taylor, Graham Wakefield and others.

Ordinarily, I would use this portion of the preview to talk about the composers represented on the program, but since I have never heard of any of them — save Barlow — and have never heard any of their music — again, save Barlow — I determined that it would do neither the composers nor their potential audience a service to pretend, based on an evening’s Internet harvest, that I knew enough about each and every one of them to talk coherently about their music. Anyway, as I am sure you know, it’s impossible to recreate music in words.

On the other hand, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to launch an often-put-off project to learn something about the new technologies and the musical possibilities they open up. This is, to begin with, no ordinary piano we are talking about here. I have heard the common form of player piano — in which a punched roll trips the felt hammers against the strings, producing a sound less like a piano than a honky-tonk harpsichord — in many locations, and under many circumstances, sometimes fairly squalid. The music was never what I remembered about the event. Also, I have read of dadaist happenings in which they punched blank rolls at random and hailed what came out as music. I didn’t think that was the kind of piano, or “music,” we were in for at Geiringer.

Then there were the absolutely amazing Welte-Mignon player pianos of the early 20th century, which were able to make clear, nuanced, exactly shaded recordings of piano performances of the greatest virtuosos and composers of the day — Debussy, Ravel, Busoni, Mahler, Granados, Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Scriabin, Fauré, Strauss, Paderewski, Hofmann — at a time when analog recordings like the phonograph were in their crude, scratchy infancy. They used paper rolls that played, not a piano, but a machine with 80 or 88 felt fingers, which pressed a particular piano key on (very precise) instructions from the roll. The technology attached to the piano used in the recording was called a “registration device” and there are none of these extent, but a few of the machines that played the piano — called “Vorsetzers” (front-sitters) — are still around, and still work. The Welte firm had skipped analog reproduction altogether. It went straight to digital, which is a matter of switches on or off, values of one or zero, or in this case, paper that has a hole or no hole.

Once this quality of reproduction was achieved, right around 1900, pianists were able to critique their own playing, and all hell broke loose.

At this point, I reached the end of what I already knew. I contacted Barlow and asked about the piano in the show. Was the reproduction mechanical or electronic? If the latter, was there any connection to the Welte piano rolls?

“The reproduction is electromechanical,” he replied. “Signals sent from a computer trigger solenoids that push the hammers against the strings with the required force.”

There was a principled connection to the Welte, but “while the Welte-Mignon rolls were pneumatically tracked (suction was used to track the holes in the rolls), in our case digital electric signals are sent straight from a computer along a special cable to a mechanism inside the MIDI player piano. Our system is a PianoDisc system (made in Sacramento), built into a Kawai grand.”

A “MIDI,” as I then learned from Wikipedia, is a “Musical Instrument Digital Interface,” which is “an industry-standard protocol that enables electronic musical instruments (synthesizers, drum machines), computers and other electronic equipment (MIDI controllers, sound cards, samplers) to communicate and synchronize with each other.”

“The general popular use of the MIDI piano,” said Barlow, “is to manually play music on the keyboard and record one’s playing by sending MIDI signals along a cable to a computer, then to play back the performance by sending MIDI signals back to the piano. However, we composers of contemporary music compose the music by various means on a computer and when the compositions are — or seem — ready, we send MIDI signals from the computer to the piano and set the keys and hammers in motion.”

Sounds like fun evenings, don’t they? And they’re free.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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