The Rite of the Pianola

It’s not just Rex Lawson’s bald head and spreading white beard that puts one in mind of Charles Darwin.  Both kindly and brilliant Brits demolished received wisdom, the latter informing Victorian ladies and gentlemen that they descended from apes far hairier than he was even in his later years, and the former insisting that almost everything you read about, and hear from, vintage player-pianos is, as Lawson puts it with emphatic diction and an even more emphatic waggle of the finger, “rubbish.”

Lawson is the present age’s most indefatigably expressive, engagingly expert, charmingly witty, and vigorously erudite virtuoso of the Pianola.  This music-making creation evolved rather more quickly than its homo sapiens inventors. Devised in 1895 (three years after Darwin’s death and six years before Queen Victoria’s) by Edwin Votey in Detroit, the instrument was within three years being manufactured in large numbers by the Aeolian Company of New York, which Votey had in the mean time joined, eventually rising to vice president.

Soon the Pianola was being heard in major concerts like that given in 1912 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Arthur Nikisch with Aeolian’s chief demonstrator, Easthope Martin, playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody at Aeolian Hall in London. Following in these footsteps and even to some of the same venues where the instrument first enthralled audiences, Lawson made his international debut in 1981 in Paris in the world premiere of the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s Les Noces under the baton of Pierre Boulez. Lawson’s wide-ranging career has taken him from Carnegie Hall to London’s Royal Albert Hall for the Last Night of the Proms, to Paris for a performance of The Rite of Spring in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées—the very place where the work was premiered in 1913.  In 1984 he and his colleague, Denis Hall founded the Pianola Institute in London.

Until World War I the Pianola was Aeolian’s Cadillac line. The company built the apparatus into uprights and grand pianos, but also manufactured a so-called “push-up” model—a complex pianistic prosthetic whose mechanism is housed in an elegant secretary (the piece of furniture not the administrative assistant). This wooden cabinet can be placed in front of any piano keyboard so that the machine’s felt-covered wooden and metal fingers hover over each key. A piano roll is inserted into the apparatus and the Pianolist animates the machine, using his hands to operate four levers set in a hatch at the top of the cabinet and his feet for the two pedals below.  Bipedalism and opposable thumbs are required of the Pianolist: call it—as Lawson does—the human factor. This is a machine that needs a thinking, moving, reactive being at its helm if it is to make music.

When Lawson plays the Pianola his gaze is intensely focused on the roll unspooling before him so he can anticipate the dynamic, rhythmic and other interpretative interventions he intends to make. His limbs are always busy. With his ever-treadling feet he supplies not only power to the machine, but also controls the volume—from long crescendos to whispered pianissimos to crashing accents. The left hand works a lever for the damper pedal, while the right uses the other bars to manage the voicing (bringing out  melodies and counter-melodies in the various registers of the piano) and timing. Lawson can produce rubato, grand pauses and subtle hesitations.  Grounded by an encyclopedic knowledge of the instrument’s history and having demonstrated its expressive capabilities, Lawson debunks in both act and deed the pervasive misconception that the Pianola merely plays itself: to pump the thing mechanically yields monotony not music.

A master can even play chamber music on the Pianola, as was done for paying audiences in the early twentieth century and again (and for free) in the not-so-early twenty-first at Lawson’s concert last night at Cornell University. His appearance was the marquee event of  a conference on Player-Pianos called “Ghosts in the Machine” that has brought experts and enthusiasts from around the world to Upstate New York this weekend. For last night’s concert—more like a salon evening with informative asides, memorable vignettes, quirky polemics, and heaps of eye-and-year-opening music—Lawson brought his own Pianola, manufactured around 1910 at the Aeolian factory in Garwood, New Jersey and flown in from London earlier this week. Lawson and his Pianola were hooked up to a mammoth Steinway grand, the performer ready to go solo, but also eager to take on all comers.

After some tempestuous Chopin and pastoral Percy Grainger, Lawson was joined by Alexa Schmitz on violin and Elizabeth Lyon on cello. The three presented the ardent drawing room debate and sweeping declarations of love (assuming there’s a difference between the two) of the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49. To play the Pianola in time with others while also shaping the ever-shifting nuances that bring chamber music to life requires great finesse, intuition, and training. Lawson and his Pianola have these attributes and many other here unnamed but equally as necessary.

The Steinway the Pianola was attached to was itself nested with another black beast of a modern grand. It was at this second piano that a succession of human pianists took the stage and faced-off against the visitor. No stranger to mechanical organs of his own time, Mozart was represented by Cornell doctoral student Shin Hwang in the first movement of the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448, the human and the mechanical in buoyant equipoise. Cornell Professor Roger Moseley was next up for a Mozart-Busoni concerto frolic, the man (Moseley) keeping frenetic pace with the man-machine duo (Lawson and Pianola). Russian-born Cornell pianists Miri Yampolsky took on Lawson in Rachmaninoff’s dance-till-you-drop Tarantella. She danced with the demonic Pianola but did not drop.

Interspersed among these contests and collaborations, were two pieces conceived for player piano by Lawson’s late friend, the American composer Colin Nancarrow, a figure whose fascinating oeuvre explored the vast potential of the mechanical in music.  Lawson unleashed a crazed, sprawling canon by Nancarrow and, later, a lolloping five-beat-to-a bar evocation of a simpler, less regulated world, the Pianola dreaming of days gone by.

In the early 1920s Igor Stravinsky made arrangements for piano roll of some of his best-known works; this music is the most celebrated associated with the Pianola. Accordingly, Lawson played the Infernal Dance of King Katschei from Firebird early on in the evening and then closed the nearly-three-concert with The Rite of Spring in its gripping, exhausting entirety.

The original Stravinsky rolls done for the Pleyel Company in Paris purport to be “joué par l’auteur”—played by the author. However effective as a selling point such tag-lines were, Lawson has demonstrated that the metronomic regularity of the rolls’ perforations prove that these do not represent a “live” performance in any sense: Stravinsky made the fascinating arrangements of his music, but did not sit down and perform them. Therefore the rolls do not offer an interpretation that goes back to the composer himself. This is one of the biggest myths Lawson wants to dispel. He maintains that the majority of piano rolls that claim to record performances by the likes of Stravinsky and Scott Joplin and many other composer/pianists actually do nothing of the kind. There were indeed recording pianos (Duo-Art and Welte-Mignon are the two best known brands) that captured “real” performances by the likes of famed Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski. But among the hundreds of thousands of rolls made, those that conjure the invisible fingers of the performing artists themselves make up only a tiny proportion. Most rolls, many later consigned to the flames as heating fuel in the very factories where they were produced but which had moved on to other technologies, were stamped out by workers.

The Pianolist must interpret Stravinsky, and so, two hours into the concert, Lawson launched into the composer’s arrangement of his Rite of Spring. The primeval bassoon solo that starts the piece is no less plaintive and terrifying when pulled from the Steinway by Lawson at his Pianola.  Pounding away at the keyboard with more than fists and fingers than a rugby side, the machine took on the character of a mini-medieval siege tower making war on an ebony-plated Steinway bastion: the resulting melee showed human artifice in all its atavistic glory. At the end of the program even the indefatigable Lawson had to admit he was quite “weary.”

This mechanized, humanly-inflected presentation of a watershed work of musical modernity that is itself a terrifying depiction of history awakening reminds one that for most people the Pianola evokes times past and passing time.  “That Pianola sure brings back memories,” Orson Welles’ corrupt and soon-to-be-has-been sheriff, Hank Quinlan tells Marlene Dietrich’s sumptuously forlorn bordello madame in the 1958 TexMex film noir, Touch of Evil. The music  the lawless lawman hears during this reverie is by Henry Mancini. Its out-of-tuneness would doubtless rankle the ears of those, like Lawson, who are among the very few people who restore, maintain, cherish, and use these vital mechanical instruments. Yet the sound of the Touch of  Evil Pianola perfectly evokes the moral and physical state of the film’s anti-hero. The playing is faltering, percussive, as if the machine is out of kilter, in need of repair: its lacks of expressivity expresses the hardened emotional state of the on-screen characters.  The clanging sonority picks at the scab of a bygone love.

But this lurching music, both mechanical and uncannily unmechanical, is in fact not emanating from a Pianola at all.  It is performed by a pianist named Ray Sherman, and was added in postproduction. Here the human tries to sound like a machine. Lawson wants to do the opposite. However important to the black-and-white magic of Touch of Evil, such nostalgic violence to the historical legacy and contemporary value of the Pianola has only emboldened Lawson to show the world that without the man, the machine makes only noise.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at