Chapter 1


This chapter presents a historical overview on the general interest and practice of composing for machines in this century. It focuses on the role of the player piano and in particular those composers who can be cited for their unique musical contributions in this area. Although automatic or mechanical music has its origins at least two centuries earlier, this century has shown great intellectual and artistic interest in all aspects of machine music. What is perhaps unique about the player piano is that although those few composers' musical output was essentially experimental, they took the instrument and its ramifications seriously. In the early part of this century - as well as perhaps in this current age of technology - an intense optimism and suspicion existed regarding machines, and composers, like the rest of society, were inspired or intimidated by the promise of that technology.

1.1 The Compositional Imperative and Human Performance

In retrospect, the scope of musical creativity in this century is evidence of a general willingness by composers to depart radically from any perceived mainstream paradigm. This divergence can be attributed to a recognition, if not a practical acceptance of, an extended taxonomy of sound suitable for musical applications. Composers wishing to realise their musical ideas by drawing upon the expanded resources, face decisions regarding production, organisation and presentation that may have no theoretical or practical parallels in the conventional music criteria. Inevitably, experimentation and exploration become an integral part of the composition strategy.

The profusion and complexity towards the prospects of music in the sonic landscape of this century has caused some to see a need to classify sound in more contemporary terms. This has been a singular compulsion in the age of electronic and computer music because these forms of sound production are in such contrast with conventional music activities. An example of this is Denis Smalley's discussion and revised definition of Pierre Schaeffer's term 'typomorphology '. This leads Smalley to write about his own term 'spectro-morphology':

Spectro-morphology is an approach to sound materials and musical structures which concentrates on the spectrum of sound materials and their shaping in time... Spectro-morphology is a way of perceiving and conceiving these new values resulting from a chain of influences which has accelerated since the turn of the century. As such it is an heir to Western musical tradition which at the same time changes musical criteria and demands new perceptions. (Smalley 1986. p.61)
And again at the end of his article:

In less than fifty years the materials of music have changed utterly, and we must now realise that spectro-morphological thinking is the rightful heir of Western musical tradition. Spectro-morphology reaffirms the primacy of aural perception which has been so heinously ignored in the recent past, and warns composers, researchers and technologists that unless aural judgment is permitted to triumph over technology, electroacoustic music will attract deserved condemnation. (Smalley 1986. p.93)
As composers have become less dependent on both the traditional sound resources and associated compositional methodologies, so too have they sought to become less constrained by the demands and fundamental limitations imposed by human performance. The traditional instrumentalists have accommodated contemporary ideas in so far as they were able to expand the physical boundaries of their medium. But this is inevitably slow. The attainment of virtuosity does not come quickly, and the effort and commitment required on the part of the performers to maintain it is considerable. However, composers' demands are rarely governed by performers' abilities. Composers are regularly transcending or pushing forward performance reality where there is aesthetic inducement. It therefore comes as no surprise that some composers have actively desired a more direct means for the realisation of contemporary music. Boulez expressed it philosophically:

Creative thought, consequently, is in a position to examine its own way of working, its own mechanisms. Whether in the evolution of formal structures, in the utilization of determinism, or in the manipulation of chance, and whether the plan of assembly be based on cohesion or fragmentariness, the field is vast and open to invention. At its limits, one can imagine possible works where material and idea are brought to coincide by the final, instantaneous operation that gives them a true, provisional existence - that operation being the activity of the composer, of an interpreter, or the audience itself. (Boulez 1977. p.14)
In the twentieth century, the significance of having works performed without recourse to traditional instrumental practitioners lies in the scope and incentives for such an activity. In previous musical periods, a composer who predominantly adopted this singular position would have received little public respect or lasting kudos. No mechanical or clockwork device was considered worthy of comparison with human performers and the dominant aesthetics would have condemned an inferior artistic result. The impact of the electronic music technologies (recording, reproduction and synthesis in analogue or digital forms) has brought about a general change in attitude towards sound, most notably from the impact of the tape recorder, tone generators and synthesizers (e.g. RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer) of the 1950's to the current time (Keane 1986. p.98). However, shortly before these technologies evolved, an inroad was made into the conventional perception of music by a medium that was a refinement of the earlier mechanical technologies.

In the second decade of this century, the pneumatic player piano and music written specifically for it, initiated a period of transition and detachment from the continuum of a perceived musical tradition. A minority of composers realised what these instruments had to offer immediately as well as their implications for the future of music. Not content with simply exploiting these instruments' mechanical advantages, those few composers sought to exercise a degree of creative latitude, often ahead of any receptive or sympathetic audience. In retrospect, very little music was produced that is clearly definitive or exemplary of the period. It was, by all accounts, too short a duration for those few composers to come to terms with the more intrinsic aspects of the medium. With the onset of recording techniques, public as well as creative interest in the instrument declined rapidly. As the player piano faded from the public's attention, so too did the knowledge of the possibilities and ramifications of automatic music from the player piano. These would be revitalised later in the age of computer music.

Human achievement in musical performance this century has stimulated composers to consider conventional performance criteria in a different light. The evolution of the new music virtuoso has culminated in a view of contemporary music that hovers between what is reasonable and what is impossible without compromise. At a fundamental level, openly transcending human performance ability, through some mechanical or electronic means, might be considered as simply following through with a specific musical idea. Here there is an assumption that the boundary of human intellect does not stop at human physical limitations and that the realisation of music does not ultimately require human involvement at all levels. Bartok's consideration of composition for the player piano led him to this observation:

The intent, however, was not to achieve superior performance but to restrict to an absolute minimum the intervention of the performer's personality. (Stravinsky and Craft 1978. p.164)
By 'performer's personality' Bartok is perhaps indicating that the actual presence of the performer can add significantly to the audiences' reception and response to the music. This is independent of the composition itself. By contrast, music performed on the player piano would produce sentiments in an audience that were predominantly elicited from the music. Once the curiosity of an automatic interpretation subsided, the music itself would become the most powerful immediate phenomenon since it would demand attention. Stravinsky makes reference to a more insidious aspect of the performer's influence on the music:

In order to prevent the distortion of my compositions by future interpreters, I had always been anxious to find a means of imposing some restriction on the notorious liberty, especially widespread to-day, which prevents the public from obtaining a correct idea of the author's intentions. (Stravinsky 1936. p.166)
Here Stravinsky is referring to the recording of his works on the player piano. While the medium would impose its own limitations, he was nevertheless free to pursue the most exacting interpretation possible under the circumstances. Certainly the later recording technologies would provide the means for preserving the composer's intentions in specific instances, but it did not guarantee to the letter the perpetual observance of these intentions by future performers.

With the rise of computer music, a new creative deal and optimism came into existence. The unique conditions, prospects and dilemmas surrounding this medium have tended to detract from the traditional aesthetic belief that real-time human performance is the true source of music. The physical reality of computer music, set unequivocally apart from the 'humanistic' tradition of music making (instrument construction, materials, sound production, control, performer interface, etc), demands a rethinking of musical tradition and what might be regarded as aesthetic goals. Initially it is the appearance and fundamental operational properties of digital technology that distinguishes it from the technology of the past. However, it is more profoundly its ability to synthesize a new and expanding sound world, one which renders the correlation between the computer's function and human physical endeavor even more distant while at the same time being creatively compelling. These essential differences are not solely responsible for its general acceptance by the musical community. The impact on society in general of computer technology provides computer music with a social foundation and aesthetic raison d'être, even if slightly controversial and provocative. It must, however, be acknowledged that the cultural ethos poses a new dilemma. For those at the frontline in this case, musicians, it is perhaps in part expressed by Boulez:

But musicians, on the whole, have felt repelled by the technical and the scientific, their education and culture having in no way given them the agility or even the readiness to tackle problems of this kind. (Boulez 1977. p.5)
To what extent composers early this century were repelled by the mechanical technology can only be surmised. At that time any composer wanting to work with the player piano was inevitably faced with a new, complex and tedious system with dubious results. The will to compose for this medium would have come from a deep personal conviction and an unflagging optimism based not necessarily in the technology itself, but on the promise of the musical result and the future.

1.2 The Player Piano as a Composition Medium

Behind its traditional image, the piano has always been at the leading edge of instrumental experimentation. Whether as part of the pedagogical process, a chamber group or as a solo musical vehicle, it has served to express contemporary music consistently since Cristofori's ingenious modifications to a harpsichord around 1709.

When composers began to pursue the ideals of automatic music, the pneumatic player piano was the obvious choice. As a self contained music system, little more was needed to produce and perform music, other than a means of accurately punching the holes, a supply of paper rolls and the ideas. The end of the 'golden age' of the player or reproducing pianos, interestingly coincides with the nascence of the information age. The binary method of encoding music on the piano roll will be appreciated by anyone familiar with card input used with early computer systems.

The pneumatic player piano has been substantially documented by Bowers (1972), Buchner (1959) and Ord-Hume (1984). Some confusion, however, exists over the terminology used to distinguish the various types. Generally, 'player piano' denotes all instruments with the roll playing action inside. These came onto the market around 1902. The 'pianola' was a brand of piano player (note the word reversal) made by the Aeolian Company which existed before the player piano. It was a system where the keys were played by an externally located mechanism with felt covered wooden fingers and first went on sale in 1897 (Lawson 1986. p.284). It is now commonly known as a 'Vorsetzer' (German - 'sitter-in-front') system.

When considering the composers who worked with the mechanical piano in the first quarter of this century, it is difficult to appreciate exactly what type of instrument they used or intended to be used for their compositions. Stravinsky speaks almost exclusively about the 'pianola', and with his early association with the Aeolian company, he may well be referring to that particular instrument. However, by 1914 and onwards, it is reasonable to suggest that instruments with the internal mechanism were equal in number, if not more common than the pianola. Especially, one would expect, in the factory of a rival company (Pleyel). It is possible that Stravinsky was using the name generically as it was the first name he equated with the mechanical piano. Whether he was influenced, creatively or practically, by the technical changes that must have inevitably taken place to the mechanical piano does not appear explicitly in his writings about his experiences or music. Furthermore, it can be interpreted from the small repertoire that neither he nor any of the pre-1930 idiomatic composers wrote enough specialised music for a sense of technical advancement to be evident.

For the most part, general discussions about the player piano are focused on the instrument's degree of conformity with the live performer model, simply because it provided the criterion for sustained development. Consequently, the use of the player piano as a medium for contemporary music received very little discussion or promotion.

The history of idiomatic 1 music for the player piano can be traced onwards from the middle of the second decade of this century. From material covering this period, a picture evolves of certain composers' attempts to exploit a medium whose inherent characteristics were virtually unknown and unimagined. To some early twentieth century composers, the instrument was a manifestation of the 'machine aesthetic' which pervaded early twentieth century art. Simply composing for it made a contemporary artistic statement and perhaps established the composer as a 'modernist' in the public's mind. But it was not until this fervor had subsided, in the middle of this century, that works of great complexity and originality were produced. The majority of these works - player piano studies by Conlon Nancarrow (some 50 todate) - remained in obscurity until the 1970's. In due course, computer music overshadowed much of the earlier mechanically based music, principally because of the intellectual demands, versatility of software, rewards and prospects. However, it is perhaps a grave artistic oversight to dismiss casually the contribution of the player piano composers. Their musical ideas remain valid and the results stand as testimony of their efforts even if now eclipsed by the brightness of yet another technological star.

1.3 Some Traditional Composers and the Player Piano

In the first two decades of this century, a number of composers recognised certain unique qualities in the player piano and attempted to experiment and explore its resources. It was a fashionable medium and association with the various manufacturers sometimes provided employment and publicity. Most of these composers returned to conventional musical practices and their works from this transient period are often conveniently neglected, lost or untraceable. Any reference to the music per se of this time is generally eclipsed by theoretical speculation on the instrument's capabilities and quality of performance.

Composers from the first decades of this century which the literature records as having written for or collaborated in musical projects employing the player piano are: George Antheil (1900-1959), Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Edward Elgar (1857-1934), Eugene Goossens (1893-1962), Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Percy Grainger (1882-1961), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Herbert Howells (1892-1983), Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Ernst Toch (1887-1964). From this list the following composers have been singled out simply because of documentary evidence of their idiomatic or eccentric use of the instrument. 2

1.3.1 Stravinsky

Although Stravinsky's involvement with the player piano spanned one sixth of his lifetime (15 years), it has become almost transparent in the assessment of his work. This transparency is certainly attributable to the duration and nature of his involvement, since for the most part it was more pragmatic than creative. In retrospect, however, the greatest difficulty in coming to terms with his association with the medium is in reconciling it with his reputation as a composer of conventional instrumental works. Robert Craft could not understand his "infatuation" (Stravinsky and Craft 1978. p.164) with the instrument, even though the literature suggests that it appealed initially to Stravinsky's sense of modernism. In practical terms, Stravinsky himself stated that "composing for the instrument was instructive and challenging for interpreters of music" (Buchner 1959. p.20).

His interest in the pianola dates from 1914 (Stravinsky and Craft 1962. p.70; Lawson 1986. pp.289-290) but his major association with it took place from 1921 when he was contracted by Pleyel of Paris to transcribe his works for player piano. This he undertook, producing some fifty rolls of his works of which at least 40 were special arrangements. These included his major works of the time, The Firebird 1910), Petruska (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), Pulcinella (1920) and Les Noces (1923) (Ord-Hume 1984. p.250). His timing for this period of work was impeccable. The instrument was at the height of its popularity and production. Stravinsky also saw it as a means of recording his works for posterity, and more significantly, capturing the performance of a work as he intended it. His years at Pleyel were profitable in more ways than one. Apart from receiving a regular income, he was given the use of one of Pleyel's Paris studios in which he both lived and composed. By 1930, however, his association with the instrument had run its course and the instrument itself was in decline.

Stravinsky's repertoire of music for the pianola largely consists of arrangements of his traditional works. Without a detailed study of these arrangements, it is impossible to determine whether he exploited the piano in order to compensate for any shortcomings in the translation from the original score. Stravinsky was, however, aware of certain idiomatic characteristics of the player piano in 1914:

Stravinsky's 1914 visit to Aeolian Hall led him to consider the Pianola, with its facilities for speed, spacing, and spectacularly sized chords, as a solo instrument. (Lawson, 1986. p.290)
The Etude for pianola op. 7 (1917) is Stravinsky's first and only idiomatic known work for the solo instrument. It was a commission from Aeolian of London through British music critic Edwin Evans (Evans 1921). Evans also organised commissions for Malipiero, Casella, Goossens and Howells (Evans 1921), as part of the same series. Stravinsky's contribution was therefore not unique (Lawson 1986. p.290). Stravinsky himself wrote about the commission:

Aeolian wrote me during the war and offered me considerable 'payola' for an original piece for pianola. The idea of being performed by rolls of perforated paper amused me, and I was attracted by the mechanics of the instrument. (Stravinsky and Craft 1926. p.70)
A performance of the Etude, along with The Rite of Spring, took place at the Aeolian Hall, London, October 13, 1921. The Etude was eventually orchestrated in 1928 and the pianola version was later renamed Madrid.

The use of the player piano for orchestral prototyping appears to have been one of the practical applications that Stravinsky observed in the instrument. Craft emphasises this point in reference to the Etude:

Stravinsky composed the Etude for pianola, a brief work that was to have a profound influence on his life for the next decade. The music was conceived not for this instrument but as an orchestral work... (Stravinsky and Craft 1978. p.163)
and further on he writes:

...the first complete sketch score - dated, at the end, "Morges, 10 September 1917," titled Etudes pour Pianola, and written on three, four, five and six staves... (Stravinsky and Craft 1978. p.163) A specification for winds nears the end of the sketch and multiple staves indicate he was thinking in orchestral terms. But multiple staves are not an unusual format if the full scope of the player piano is being used and greater clarity of the parts is required.
Since most of his work with the player piano centred around transcriptions of his major (orchestral) works, there seems no doubt that he was constantly aware of the orchestral implications. However:

There was a second direction in which this work gave me satisfaction of another kind. This was not simply the reduction of an orchestral work to the limitations of a piano of seven octaves. It was the process of adaption to an instrument which had on the one hand, unlimited possibilities of precision, velocity, and polyphony, but which, on the other hand, constantly presented serious difficulties in establishing dynamic relationships. These tasks developed and exercised my imagination by constantly presenting new problems of an instrumental nature closely connected with the questions of acoustics, harmony and part-writing. (Stravinsky 1936. p.167)
The character of the Etude was strongly influenced by a visit to Spain undertaken by Stravinsky in 1916. His contemporaries had gone there earlier and returned, intoxicated by Spanish life, to write music. The Etude in a similar way is Stravinsky's artistic souvenir. Lawson describes the work:

The music of the Etude is deliberately mechanical in sound, full of fragmented Spanish dance tunes, overlapping and competing with each other as Stravinsky sought to capture the atmosphere of the Madrid streets, which he had experienced firsthand during a visit in 1916... The piece makes a virtue of the chunky musical texture the player piano can sometimes produce. (Lawson 1986. p.290)
Stravinsky confirms this in the following description:

The whimsicalities of the unexpected melodies of the mechanical pianos and rattletrap orchestrinas of the Madrid streets and the little night taverns served as theme for this piece, which I wrote expressly for the pianola... (Stravinsky 1936. p.117)
The Etude is thus used idiomatically in an entirely unexpected way. He exploited the sound of the instrument to invoke the mood of Spanish street life.

Returning to the more formal questions of the Etude, Craft recounts an incident that touches on one of the most interesting and central characteristics of the instrument:

Yet one of the strangest documents in Stravinsky's entire bibliography is an interview in The New York Times Magazine, January 18, 1925: "Player Piano, Composer Says, Holds Unplumbed Possibilities in 'Polyphonic Truth.'" But did Stravinsky attempt to "plumb" them? The Etude itself... does not explore even such possibilities of the instrument as subdividing the beat beyond the techniques of human performers, or writing a glissando for the entire keyboard to be played in the fraction of a second. (Stravinsky and Craft 1978. p.164)
Craft's comments - made some considerable time later - are perhaps overly critical of what is essentially a difficult medium in which to work. Firstly, he seems unaware that the two dates need to be put in context with Stravinsky's development on the instrument. The title of the article, drawn presumably from the interview itself, is in 1925, some eight years after the Etude of 1917 was produced. As Stravinsky's first (and only) idiomatic work for pianola, it is highly unlikely that it would abound in mechanical virtuosity. He may have been aware of some of the possibilities but would not have attempted to fully exploit them in the first work. Obviously, it takes time to understand the inherent resources of any instrument, let alone one that cannot be explored in real-time. Secondly, Stravinsky's inspiration for the composition reflects a less formal, more impressionistic approach to the instrument. This, however, does not necessarily indicate that any technically innovative ideas he may have had would be excluded from the work.

Finally, a more pragmatic view would take into account the broader issues of his life. When he resumed his activities with the medium in 1921, his attention appears to have been focused on the translation of his existing works. It is an important point because he was getting paid to do it. With this and the pressure to compose conventional music, he may simply not have had the opportunity to indulge in composing essentially esoteric player piano music.

By 1925, however, Stravinsky may have been in a position to compose a substantial idiomatic work. There is evidence that he intended in his scores, to exploit the instrument beyond human capabilities as early as 1923. Lawson, in discussing his work in producing a roll for the world premier of Les Noces in June of 1981 writes:

...but the Pianola is called on to provide musical resources beyond the number, span, and speed of the human fingers. Individual notes repeat at six hundred forty per minute in many instances; yet I found only one bar containing musical impossibility in the shape of three pairs of notes repeated at nine hundred and sixty per minute, which is attainable by the Pianola mechanism, but alas not by the piano keyboard. As luck would have it, the octave above is sounded with the first note of each pair, so the omission of the lower pitch is barely noticeable, especially at such a high speed. (Lawson 1986. p.296)
The speeds mentioned, 640 and 960 notes per minute (10.6 and 16 notes per second respectively), indicate formidable operation if the same note is repeated each time. But if by 'individual' he means a new consecutive note at each attack then it is slow in comparison with, for example, Nancarrow's 111 notes per second in Study #21 (Tenney 1977. pp.54-56).

The impression of Stravinsky's involvement with the player piano is one of consistency with the times. Apart from lucrative associations with manufacturers, nothing distinguishes his activities from those of several less prominent composers who also had the opportunity to work with the medium. Yet he seems to have spent an inordinately long time associated with it, without producing anything of lasting significance or even close to level of originality found in his conventional works. His artistic stature in this century accredits him with such importance in the advancement of contemporary music that it is a disappointment to realise that for the most part, he bestowed upon the player piano his sentiments and not his creative genius.

1.3.2 Antheil, Hindemith, Toch and Cowell

George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique epitomises the early twentieth century's fascination for machines and their contribution to contemporary life. That it was anything more than a provocative musical work is certainly a point for debate. However, of interest here is Antheil's use of the player piano. Linda Whitesitt writes regarding the Ballet Mécanique film score:

The first version of the Ballet Mécanique was for sixteen pianolas run electrically from a common control. After the master rolls were cut by Maison Pleyel, it was found that the music did not fit the film; in fact, it was about twice as long as the film. Because of this, and also because of the difficulty encountered in synchronizing the sixteen pianolas from a common roll, Antheil decided to orchestrate the Ballet. (Whitesitt 1986. pp.106-107)
The problem of synchronization seems to have caused every composer, who wanted to use the instrument in a broader context, considerable problems, ultimately forcing a compromise. Whether it was synchronizing the instruments with themselves or with traditional performers, the net result is likely to have been a growing disenchantment with the medium.

In 1921 Antheil produced a work for pianola called Serpent Mécanique (unpublished) and in 1923, Mechanisms for Pianola which are described in the catalogue (Whitesitt 1986. p.202) as:

Mechanismen, Erste Gruppe in 4 Dimensionen

  1. Mechanism interrhythmic
  2. Mechanism cubistic
  3. Mechanism eliptic interrhythmic
  4. Mechanism eliptic
  5. Mechanism pyschoeliptic
  6. Mechanism sensurorhythmic
  7. Mechanism planetary
Although Antheil is identified with an enthusiasm for the future and machines (in the early part of his career) his actual use of the player piano is surprisingly minimal. The instrument is more frequently represented in a symbolic rather than a functionally creative capacity. In this respect he is somewhat similar to Stravinsky who initially used it for its unique sound. It is regrettable that Antheil's few idiomatic works remain in obscurity. For if he endowed these compositions with the musical substance equal to his verbal commitment to his espoused 'machine aesthetic' (Whitesitt 1986. pp.68-70), then these compositions would be truly remarkable.

Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch are mentioned in the general literature with reference to contemporary composition for the player piano. The exact focus of their musical attention is unknown. Nevertheless both had works for the medium performed at the International Musikfest series in Baden-Baden in 1925. In 1926 a 'Mechanical Music Festival' was held, again in Baden-Baden, and Hindemith and Toch were again represented (Buchner 1959. p.20). The Harvard Dictionary of Music further states :

Some modern composers (Hindemith, Toch) have written original compositions for such mechanical pianos, availing themselves of the possibility of producing sound effects not obtainable by a live pianist, e.g., chords consisting of thirty and more notes, or the simultaneous use of the lowest, middle, and highest registers. (Apel 1976. p.514)
Paul Hindemith is also cited in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians for a 1926 work for player piano, Toccata für Mechanisches Klavier op. 40 (unpublished) (Kemp 1980. p.586). He also collaborated on Triadischen Ballett op. 40, with the dancer/choreographer, Oskar Schlemmer. Geoffrey Skelton writes:

The Welte mechanical piano was worked by punched paper rolls, and the music Hindemith wrote for his Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet) was punched on the rolls with his own hand. (Skelton 1975. pp.82-83)
Henry Cowell expressed the potential of the instrument for the interpretation of complex polyrhythms (Cowell 1930. pp.64-65) but wrote no music for the instrument. His influential book, New Music Resources (1930, New ed. 1969) may have been responsible for further investigation of the player piano by some composers and most certainly the contemplation of meter and tempo beyond human ability.

1.4 Recognition and Exploitation of the Idiomatic Player Piano

Of the many composers that had an association with the player piano only two stand out as pioneers in its extended use for serious composition and it is interesting to note that when one died the other was about to begin his work with the medium.

These composers are singled out by their duration of activity, degree of commitment and insight into the latent possibilities of the medium. Also by definition, they are the classic 'rugged individualist' types. Existing, as they did, in different compositional epochs, they nevertheless held some perceptions of the instrument in common. They also composed for traditional instruments at various times throughout their musical lives, but this did not overshadow their enthusiasm for the player piano.

1.4.1 Edward Oswald Schaaf

Early this century the American Edward Oswald Schaaf (1869-1939), a physician and self-taught composer, advocated the player piano as an instrument for serious composition. Apart from composing, he wrote theoretical and educational articles concerning the medium. Unfortunately, due to the condition of his estate at the time of his death, there are no extant rolls or recordings which testify to the success of his musical ideas. There are, however, scores which give an indication of his musical intent.

Schaaf was essentially a composer with a 19th century musical training and strongly influenced by Wagner's approach to chromatic harmony. He does not appear in the mainstream of contemporary composers in the early part of the 20th century but nonetheless received recognition as a composer. Various reviews exist which testify to his activity and diversity in this capacity. What is unusual about Schaaf is that from a fundamentally conservative musical background he crusaded for the use of the player piano with an intensity, purpose and insight considerably ahead of his time. It should be pointed out that his purpose was not iconoclastic. He appears to have simply wanted to add the valuable qualities of the instrument, as he saw them, to the universe of musical experience.

In his Ph.D. dissertation, John Hawkins (Hawkins 1986) gives a substantial account of Schaaf's observations on the player piano as a vehicle for composition, with many examples from Schaaf's scores. In his articles, it is clear that Schaaf viewed the player piano as both a medium for composition and as a teaching tool.

Of particular relevance at this point is Schaaf's insight and understanding towards an idiomatic exploitation of the instrument. It is unfortunate that while his music may consistently and convincingly testify to his ideals, it cannot be corroborated without hearing the repertoire. Since there is little possibility of this, a partial assessment of his efforts must be made on the basis of his scores and writings.

The following is a summary of Schaaf's observations on the instruments musical qualities and characteristics extracted from chapters 4 and 5 of Hawkin's thesis.

Schaaf noted that the instrument was better suited to contrapuntal music and saw it in a similar light to the Harpsichord. Without the direct real-time control over expression and dynamic contouring of any part of a composition, the player piano was generally unsuitable for music in the melody and accompaniment style. Superimposing a delicate and sculptured melodic line over a harmonic landscape was not easily accomplished on the instrument. The paper roll could not contain enough information about the behaviour of the each note. An effective melodic line is thus difficult to achieve and sounds considerably less impressive in comparison with a human performer. Schaaf attempted to overcome this through careful use of registers, tonal balance and attention to rhythmic groups in the accompaniment in order to accentuate the melodic line. The overall result of this was a tendency towards music in an "epic rather than lyrical style" (Hawkins 1986. p.151).

Due perhaps to the percussive nature of the player piano, Schaaf believed that rhythm was the most significant element in music for the instrument. He explored traditional rhythmic devices such as syncopation, arpeggiation, homorhythmic structures, and even the use of the fermata as a rhythmic effect. But it appears that his use of cross or polyrhythms was conservative (undeveloped) in comparison with his contemporaries (see Examples 1.1 and 1.2). He was aware of the polyrhythmic possibilities inherent in polyphonic music yet seemed more intent on harmonic development. In his work, concerto in F minor, no explicit use is made of cross-rhythms which is surprising because it is a major work. One of the more prominent examples of cross rhythms (according to Hawkins) is at the beginning of his Novelette op. 9, No.1, (Example 1.1, measures 1-3) where cross rhythms occur through the use of different time signatures (6/8 against 3/4). This notational aspect is, of course, irrelevant to the final representation on the piano roll and to the instrument's interpretation of the music. In the Ballade No.2 op. 38, (Example 1.2, measure 46[sic]) a subtle use is made of 2 against 3 to achieve tonal balance. Generally, Schaaf seems to have preferred syncopation and the more local effects of iteration, strappata (rapid arpeggiation) and tremolos.

Schaaf's harmonic style, being influenced by the chromatic works of Wagner, reflects a retrospective rather than progressive harmonic thinking. To some extent this is attributable to Schaaf's autodidactic musical development. As an enthusiastic amateur, he would not have had access to progressive musical environments which could ultimately have focused his thinking on the present and future. Had he been aware of those contemporary changes taking place in western harmonic thinking in the late teen's and early 20's of this century, he may still not have had the means nor artistic raison d'être to follow suit. In this respect, he is similar to Nancarrow, whose harmonic vocabulary, developed in the 1920's and 30', changed little throughout his works. Nancarrow's distinctive pantonalism has been particularly effective in articulating his highly contrapuntal music and he has not found it necessary to change his harmonic thinking.

Of particular relevance to this thesis, and discussed later in the section on Nancarrow, is the effect of playing notes extremely fast. Hawkins notes that Schaaf was aware of the effect of this technique in the following passage: Because the instrument is capable of performing music at great speeds, the element of speed may actually be a style characteristic of music for the player piano. Dissonance and parallelisms not ordinarily acceptable will sound well at rapid tempi. Very fast tempi can also add luster and musical effectiveness to material which may appear banal at a slower tempo. (Hawkins 1986. p.72)

Hawkins further discusses the affect of speed on harmony and Schaaf's 'horizontal emphasis':

...the idea of prolongation of a basic diatonic harmonic design, a design expanded to the point where chromaticism causes the tonality to lose its cohesive force. (Hawkins 1986. p.74)
While the technical aspects of Schaaf's musical involvement with the player piano are evidence of a deep interest, his vision for an 'automatic art' did not stop there. He maintained that it was not a keyboard art and that the keyboard itself should be removed from the instrument (Hawkins 1986. p.30). Here he was consciously trying to avoid a pianistic approach to composing for it.

In fact an instrument was made by Welte, called the 'Red Welte' (Ord-Hume 1984. Plates 88-89) with no keyboard. It was not made with Schaaf's views in mind but rather as a musical cabinet. Its lack of a keyboard caused such unnecessary difficulties when tuning, that a special short, detachable 'tuning' keyboard had to be provided. Since it lacked the ability to be played as an normal piano few were made. Quite possibly Schaaf never heard of it.

When considering the technical innovations of Schaaf's works (Hawkins 1986. Chapters 4 and 5) it becomes clear that although his perspective was traditional, he sought to superimpose the idiom of the player piano on this perspective. This seems contrary to his contemporaries who sought to impose their perspective on the idiom of the player piano.

Hawkins, in the conclusion to his dissertation puts Schaaf into perspective:

His music could hardly be considered avant garde when compared with such works as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Ives' Central Park in the Dark. Nor was Schaaf's output as technically finished as works by Toch and Hindemith. Most certainly his musical ideas did not change the course of twentieth-century music as did the work of Schoenberg. (Hawkins 1986. p.171)
Later Hawkins writes:

From our present vantage point, it would seem that Schaaf was a musical visionary, albeit a somewhat near-sighted one. Yet, he was looking in the right direction. He could probably never have imagined the computer-controlled instruments that technology has made available... (Hawkins 1986. p.171)

1.4.2 Conlon Nancarrow

Conlon Nancarrow is the most important player piano composer as well as one of the outstanding composers of this century. In fact, his Studies, in their austere objective, functional clarity and awesome effect, transcend the medium entirely. Unlike Schaaf, the source of his style and musical outlook are firmly in the twentieth century. His life and music have been well documented (Amirkhanian 1977; Carlsen 1986; Garland 1977) and therefore the following discussion about him simply emphasises two points. Firstly, that he plumbed the depths of the instrument, exploring its unique behaviour and characteristics, and secondly, that he made changes to the physical instrument where he saw it necessary to his music.

Nancarrow's fifty studies for the player piano are testimony to the value of an instrument that was clearly undervalued by most composers. It is also more than apparent that a certain compositional imperative, as well as his relative isolation, were required to manifest such an extraordinary corpus of studies.

In these studies, Nancarrow is principally concerned with Tempo. In order to clearly express temporal relationships he used the 'canonic' musical form exclusively. To a degree, he was confirming Schaaf's belief that the player piano was more suited to contrapuntal music than that of the melody and accompaniment genre.

Nancarrow's access to complex temporal relationships is directly attributable to the encoding and performance mechanism of the player piano. The organisation of musical information on the roll, and the function of the mechanism, allows for the performance of simultaneous events. The fact that events can occur simultaneously is due to autonomous control over each event. The paper roll, as an analogue of time, (as opposed to the digital or discrete representation of time) can have perforations (note events) occurring any where on its longitudinal surface and within the boundaries of the tracker bar which defines the perforations.

While tempo and the canonic form dominated the musical architecture, internally he created a diversity of intricate structures, termed 'aggregates'. These aggregates encompass a broad range of complex structures executed at high speed. Example 1.3 is an aggregate from Study #25. This study makes a feature of the use of aggregates and was also the first study in which Nancarrow used the 'exploded' scoring technique. This technique allowed him to notate large numbers of notes without disturbing the arrangement of the main score. James Tenney (Tenney 1977) in his brief analysis of the study, classifies the types of aggregates found in it:

In study #25, however, these linear aggregates are given much greater prominence that in those earlier Studies, [#5 and #12] and they occur in several different forms: (1) major triads, arpeggiated through one or several octaves; (2) diatonic scales (never the chromatic scales we will find later in Studies #36 and #40); (3) harmonic-series sequences (usually running up to the 16th harmonic of some fundamental); (4) seventh-chord arpeggios (sometimes with the minor, sometimes the major 7th, and either detached -- staccato -- or with their component tones sustained); and finally, (5) longer concatenations of such seventh-chords, on successively different scale-degrees. (Tenney 1977. p.57)
Their function in Study #25 is elemental, substituting for single notes or vertical chords, but with a new type of resonant character. Nancarrow explains the nature of aggregates from a psychoacoustic perspective:

... (beyond a certain speed) the ear can't distinguish the sounds the same way. You hear a group of notes as a block. (Tenney 1977. p.58)
Nancarrow modified his pianos to take advantage of this effect by minimising the ambient resonance in the instruments. He achieved this by having dampers on all strings (Nancarrow 1987; Riddell 1988). Furthermore, he hardened the hammers to bring out the definitive higher overtone characteristics of each string. The degree of hardness of the hammers varies between his instruments.

Charles Amirkhanian (1977), in conversation with Nancarrow, asked about the differences between the two instruments. Nancarrow replied:

Well, not so much really. This piano I put wooden hammers -- pure wood -- no felt at all -- with a steel strip around it -- that's why this is more aggressive. This other one has the felt and a strip of leather and then something like a thumbtack. (Amirkhanian 1977. p.11)
Nancarrow's modifications did not stop at the instruments. After completing a number of studies and having gained experience with the method of producing the rolls, he realised that the mechanism for punching the holes was too restrictive. He eventually had the punch modified to give him access to any longitudinal fraction of the roll. Prior to this, adjustment of the roll had been governed by a ratchet mechanism which forced a discrete rather than a smooth flow of paper. This was an enormous breakthrough. It represented a quantum leap from the thinking of the earlier composers about the subdivision of time. On a more mundane level, Nancarrow also had the punching operation extended beyond one hole at a time to 2, 3 or 4 holes (Nancarrow 1987). This reduced the fatiguing operation of punching many holes for sections with sustained notes. In fact, his earlier works reflect his awareness of the tedium of that process by having very few sustained notes or chords.

The underlying significance in these changes is attributable to Nancarrow's growing intimacy with the punched roll as a secondary score. As he plotted the notes, dynamics and temporal relations, then punched the roll, the composition would be revealed for a second time in a graphic form. Over the years, this would not only become an integral part of composing but a factor in determining the complexity of future compositions.

This consideration of the player piano and the historically significant fraction of its music ends with Nancarrow. It seems highly unlikely that another composer will continue with the medium for a similar period of time from where Nancarrow will ultimately leave it. The new technology provides an irresistible temptation in the search for contemporary expression.

There have, however, been a few recent composers who have produced unique individual works for the instrument. One of these composers is James Tenney. His work Spectral Canon for CONLON Nancarrow (1974) (Garland 1984. pp.233-27; Tenney 1984. pp.1-17) is of particular interest in that it required the instrument to be tuned to the harmonic series and the roll itself was actually punched by Conlon Nancarrow as a favour to Tenney. It is a dense (24 voices) player piano canon with the emphasis on the harmonic ratios.

Over the past 60 years, the player piano has been at the centre of a micro-musical universe. While sparsely inhabited, it encompassed many of the qualities that define twentieth century music and it forms a tiny bridge between certain musical attitudes of the past and those of the present age of technology.

Endnotes to Chapter One

  1. The term 'idiomatic' in this instance is intended to convey a sense of 'a manifestation of the peculiar' i.e. belonging exclusively to something. It is a specific regard for inherent characteristics that are invariably arrived at after a deeper appreciation of, in this case, the player piano and its creative potential beyond the obvious. return
  2. Original compositions for the player piano by Stravinsky (Etude pour "Pianola"), Goossens (Rhythmic Dance), Malipiero (Tre Improvvisi per "Pianola"), Casella (Trois Pieces pour "Pianola") and Howells (Phantasy Minuet) are being re-released on piano roll during 1989 through the Player Piano Group in England. return

Tile Page | Dedication | Abstract | Contents | Examples
Introduction | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Conclusion
Bibliography | Discography | Appendices