Last week, I attended a concert on the campus of USC that featured new music written for that century-old oddity, the player piano. Before recordings were popular, folks bought a player piano, which was as real and playable as any piano, put it in the living room, inserted a pre-punched roll of paper and, voila! The latest rag, boogie-woogie, or Tin Pan Alley hit was automatically performed, keys pounding away like an invisible man was playing.
So what's a player piano concert like? Someone puts in a piano roll, and you watch the piano play itself. The organizer, Veronika Krausas, apparently thought that this would be too uninteresting, so she asked her acrobat friends from Circe de Soleil to change the rolls, throwing in some acrobatics along the way. And a (seemingly under-rehearsed) bluegrass band played occasionally as well. A couple artsy black-and-white silent short films played during some of the music. I don't think Ms. Krausas was trying to be weird, but the surreal combination of these elements certainly added up to a real head-scratcher of an evening.
She had nothing to worry about. It was actually quite fascinating to watch the piano play itself - some songs created geometric patterns on the keyboard, and compositions that simply could not be played by humans could be dazzling both visually and musically. Don't have any video unfortunately, but I bought the CD "The Player Piano Project" that featured all the works performed that night, such as this dizzying demolition of John William's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" theme:
Ceiri Torjussen "Raiders March"
The big name featured was James Tenney, who died in 2006, but not before creating this incredible piece. It starts slowly and deliberately, then builds to an increasingly astonishing chaotic crescendo. Whew!
James Tenney: "Spectral CANON For CONLON Nancarrow"
Yes, electronics can also be used to make impossible-to-perform music, but hearing (and seeing) it coming from an acoustic, and usually predictable, instrument like the piano is different, like seeing a doll possessed by demons come to life and start talking to you.
So who was this Conlon Nancarrow? Why, only the granddaddy of creative player piano abuse. Throughout his long 20th century career he, more then anyone else, revealed the artistic possibilities of an instrument most others had long since relegated to the antique store.
Conlon Nancarrow - "Study For Player Piano # 21" - Absolute insanity; makes my head swim in the best possible way.
From the album "Player Piano 3: Conlon Nancarrow Vol. 2 - Studies 13-32"