Roll On
August 11, 2013 1:13 PM   Subscribe

Old records wear out, and sheet can't really describe the swing of jazz, ragtime and blues—but a good player piano roll captures the style and rhythm of a live performance and preserves it for generations to come.

Warning: some antique racist material in titles and lyrics.
posted by overeducated_alligator (20 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, I had no idea that the original "Puttin' on the Ritz" was one huge racist joke.
posted by theodolite at 1:22 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

the Gershwin Piano Rolls recordings are some of my favorite music.

posted by Teakettle at 1:27 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

So I was thinking about this just today: I can see that the piano roll keeps track of which notes you hit when, and for how long. Does it have a way of keeping track of how hard you hit the keys? It sounds like it from the 'ragtime' link, but I'm not sure how it's working.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:37 PM on August 11, 2013

A lot of this is called "stride piano," (Google it for lessons, Wikipedia etc.) a style that has to be employed judiciously these days, because it sounds a little corny...because it is, after all, about a hundred years old. It solves the following problem: pianists would ideally perform three roles in a solo piece. 1) Establish chords with bass notes. 2) Play the chords to create the harmonic movement. 3) Play the melody. So...three jobs, two hands. Stride piano (James P. Johnson was one of the masters) solves this problem by alternating #1 and #2 on beats 1 and 3, and 2 and 4 within a 4/4 measure. Hence the "oom-pah" feeling.

Modern solo jazz piano has different ways of finessing this problem, but hints of the Stride Solution can still be part of a jazz pianist's stylistic profile.
posted by kozad at 1:47 PM on August 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

Oh, and regarding kaibutsu's question: the old rolls seen here do not register how hard the pianist hits the keys (and it wasn't perhaps as important with this style), but for some decades now, digital pianos (and digital equipment attached to acoustic pianos) do this. They do it very well now, of course.
posted by kozad at 1:51 PM on August 11, 2013

I could see a light filter based system where the light frequency determines the strength of the hit, so instead of pure translucency you'd have a colored/rainbow of strips being read by a an optic sensor.

Also: Piano Hero???

I wonder if you could finger train a player to play a song (at least notes/timing, not necessarily the optimum attack velocity)... It would be harder to do than guitar hero since you're doing all 10 fingers across a large array of keys, but... it could be interesting?
posted by symbioid at 2:21 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Actually, there was a device that allowed the recording of dynamics as well. It was called the Vorsetzer, and a number of classical musicians including Grieg, Debussy, and Saint-Saens made recordings with it.

A number of these rolls were recorded on an LP set in the 1960's, but they don't seem to be available now. There are several YouTube videos, however.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:30 PM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

There was a Piano Hero, it is now called Synthesia.
posted by fings at 2:43 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Cool, thanks kozad and CheeseDigestsAll. I was specifically curious about piano roll methods for getting dynamics; I know a bit about things musical and electronic, and am thus quite aware that it's pretty trivial to keep track of these days. (In fact, it always feels a bit weird to play with old casio keyboards which don't register dynamics.)
posted by kaibutsu at 2:55 PM on August 11, 2013

Previously on mefi, experimental piano roll music by Conlon Nancarrow. They were composed directly on paper rolls so they are difficult to even transcribe as sheet music, and impossible for a human being to play.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:56 PM on August 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Michael Tilson Thomas took the 1925 piano roll of Gershwin playing Rhapsody In Blue, covered all the holes which were for the second piano / orchestra parts with tape, and then recorded the piece with an orchestra. Basically, you got a new, modern recording of Gershwin at the piano playing with an orchestra.

When I was studying for my high school diploma in piano performance and was learning Rhapsody In Blue, it was a constant reference for me.
posted by hippybear at 3:09 PM on August 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

I didn't realize you could change the tempo on a player piano until I saw the "Tempo X for Dancing/Tempo Y for Singing" markings on some of the rolls. I always assumed the tempo was built into the holes in the paper, as silly as that sounds now that I give it even a moment's thought. That must have been incredibly handy for learning new tunes and steps.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:21 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, that was Nancarrow's great realization, that the time scale of the piano roll was analog, but the keys were binary, down/up. So he could produce very complex time signatures, playing several melodies in different tempos simultaneously, or continuously slowing down or speeding up. This would be difficult to repeat by even a skilled pianist. Also a player piano can hit more than 10 keys at once, at a speed quicker than human fingers could move. Check out more of Nancarrow's work on YouTube, most of them show the piano roll as it plays, they're astonishing. There are some pieces with arpeggios that go up and down the entire keyboard in a fraction of a second.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:28 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a site that logs classic piano rolls

My great-grandmother, under a false name, recorded several piano rolls during the Depression to help feed her family. This is one that she played, Never Again, that has been rereleased as a historically important recording and they're making new copies of the roll.

It makes me a little teary to be listening to my great-grandmother playing piano via the magic of the internet. The gentleman who collects, curates, and re-releases this got in touch with my family several years ago because he'd managed to track down my great-grandmother's real name, and wanted information to add to her biography, as she recorded a LOT of rolls and was fairly well-known for it. The curator was able to send us audio files of a bunch of her rolls playing on the roll piano, and my grandfather, who was quite elderly at the time, was able to hear his mother play piano again before he died last year. It meant an awful lot to him, and to us, and it makes me teary to be able to listen to this one on YouTube.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:57 PM on August 11, 2013 [116 favorites]

the Gershwin Piano Rolls recordings are some of my favorite music.

Indeed one of my most cherished CDs. Gershwin Plays Gershwin, the man himself caught on a piano roll and played on a player piano.
posted by carsonb at 5:52 PM on August 11, 2013

There are other Scott Joplin survivors, and alas, nothing to write home about. The thinking is that he was too far gone with tertiary syphilis. Sad, really.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:55 PM on August 11, 2013

We had a player piano when I was a kid, and my family took a tour of the QRS Piano Roll factory here in Buffalo. They were the biggest manufacturer of piano rolls, and up until a few years ago, still had part of their operation in Buffalo (they're still in business: They used to have all sorts of famous people come to the factory to record piano rolls, and they did it on the same recorder piano that Gershwin used. I remember seeing a news story about them closing up shop here and they showed they were still using custom software on an original Macintosh for some of their more "modern" rolls.
posted by jonathanhughes at 7:42 PM on August 11, 2013

Thanks for posting the Gershwin rolls, hippybear. I had to make sure by finding the Al Hirshfeld LP cover on Discogs, but this was indeed the recording I discovered in the public library when I was a teenager. And proceeded to listen to exactly thirteen times in a row, sitting enraptured under headphones on the couch while my brother watched HBO.
posted by ariel_caliban at 12:46 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

But wait, there's more!
CheeseDigestAll mentioned the Vorsetzer; that was one variation of a family of devices which "sat in front" of a piano. There were several systems developed in the early 20th century which attempted to reproduce the dynamics of an artist's performance. I've seen examples of Welte-Mignon, Duo-Art, and Ampico, the latter two built into Steinway and Mason-Hamelin grands. There's quite a bit of info on this site, though it's not complete.
A friend of mine has restored many Ampico and Duo-Art rolls, and recorded them playing on his own Steinway and Mason-Hamlin pianos. The performances are stunning.
Edit: This is an Ampico- Mason Hamlin: Gershwin
posted by drhydro at 11:51 PM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had gotten two large boxes of old piano rolls from someone in our neighborhood a few years ago. I just recently donated them to the Univ of Texas - i was very glad they wanted them.
posted by nightwood at 8:32 PM on September 7, 2013

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