Saturday, April 4, 2009

Put the Needle on the Record (VI)

Presenting John Farrell: The Amazing Auto-Roll Piano Soloist (Halcyon, 1976)
It might be just me, but why is it that the title of this record conjures up the sound of a carnival barker shouting those very words, preceded by the phrase “step right up, ladies and gentlemen”? I suppose it’s the word ‘amazing’ that does it. The front cover of this record, by contrast, shows a very ordinary looking man in an unmistakably 1970s photo: the scruffy hair and beard, the white trousers and polo-neck, the awful wallpaper... So what are auto-roll pianists and why are they ‘amazing’? Well, Farrell has taken original ragtime and early jazz scores by people like Art Tatum, Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Morton and Teddy Wilson, and then, to let the sleevenotes describe the process:
John, who is an accomplished pianist and could easily play all the selections on this record by the old-fashioned method of applying his ten fingers to the normal piano keyboard, nevertheless prefers to use an indirect and complex method. He cuts his own piano rolls from the original scores; these are then played on the most sophisticated player-piano available and recordings made.
But it’s the next paragraph that’s more interesting, and contentious:
The advantages of this system will be apparent on reflection. However closely a piano soloist may try to follow a score, he is bound to produce some slight personal variation of timings, etc. This applies particularly to popular music of the past. The compositions on these recordings are thus recreated in versions probably closer in authenticity to the original ‘feel’ than would otherwise be possible. And in most cases, these versions have an advantage even over contemporary recordings by the original artiste – they have the benefit of modern recording techniques, including stereo and relative absence of background noise. In other words – hear the music as it was heard at the time of its first performance ... courtesy of John Farrell and his auto-rolls!
“The advantages of this system will be apparent on reflection”. Hmmm... The immediate question that this raises is, of course: can what Mr Farrell does be described as music at all? Or are they just aural scores for people who can’t read music? And would the composers have approved? After all, several of the titles draw attention to the fact that, “at the time of [their] first performance”, human execution of these difficult pieces is integral to their nature: ‘Finger-Buster’, ‘Tricky Fingers’, ‘Troublesome Ivories’, and ‘The Fingerbreaker’, for example. For it is the “slight personal variation of timings”, or, to state it another way, the deeply personal interpretation of a piece of scored music by a musician, that draws people to piano soloists in the first place. It would have been interesting to see the reaction of the classical establishment if the Amazing Auto-Roll Piano Soloist had tackled some of Beethoven’s sonatas! The other question it raises is whether anyone would have noticed if Mr Farrell had released these as simple piano music. It helps that most of the pieces are pretty straightforward emotionally if not technically; they’re light, bouncy and rhythmic. But it seems clear to me that Mr Farrell’s method could only be used with such music; with anything more emotionally complex, the coldness of the machine would show through to easily. It’s like computer-generated faces; even with the level of technology currently available, we are so accustomed to the minutest detail of expression that even the most lifelike rendering still appears ‘wrong’ to us. And I would imagine that to any discerning listener the same would happen with Mr Farrell’s music. What I think would have been interesting if one side of the LP had been John with his Auto-Roll hat on, and on the other he’d played the same pieces in the traditional, fingers-on-ivories, fashion, so the listener could have made up their mind as to which version was “better”. But I don’t want to sound like I’m mocking Mr Farrell here, as he was primarily motivated by a love of this music, and what he’s produced here is at least rendered from some very fine pieces indeed. And it's interesting to note that what he worked hard to accomplish on this record, punching piano rolls by hand, could be done on a computer in a matter of minutes these days. What do you think about his methods?
Farrell was mainly known as a jazz enthusiast and transcriber who copied down hundreds of early jazz works both in manuscript and piano-roll form, and could apparently remember entire tunes by ear alone after one hearing. He was also a really nice guy, by all accounts, and I'm glad to have this record, even if I'm dubious about what it's trying to achieve on an artistic if not an archival level. More information about him can be found here.
One can’t help (well, I can’t help) being reminded of the music of Conlon Nancarrow, who also programmed player-pianos to perform his compositions, except Nancarrow did it in order to create music that was actually impossible for ten fingers to play, to explore the way that new music could be created using machines. Here’s one of his pieces:

Or a CD I have by a guy called Tom Sora (Music for Mechanical and Electronic Instruments, Col Legno, 2006), who uses punched rolls fed through a tiny variation of the music box, about the size of a butter dish, to create delicate little raindrop compositions, and who also uses computer-generated pianos to creat hugely dense walls of sound impossible to play without ten arms and as many fingers as there are teeth in a comb. It's worth a listen if you can track down a copy.


VLR said...

Great, that Nancarrow piece!


A Doubtful Egg said...

Nancarrow's work is fascinating, and admirable considering how little recognition he received in his lifetime.

Stan said...

Very interesting post, Doubtful. Whether a machine can capture the essence of music or whether it loses something in merely reproducing it mechanically, and if so, what, is a chewy question that pops up in science fiction a bit, in one way or another, though examples elude me at the moment.

I agree that personal interpretation is what draws some people to piano soloists - and other musicians - but there are plenty who would not differentiate, and would happily hum along all day to a programmed pan pipes musak version of Beethoven's 9th. Then there are the musicians you mention, who operate in a grey area. Wendy Carlos also comes to mind; her early synthesizer albums (like Switched-On Bach) sold in vast numbers but were dismissed by many purist critics, despite her musical pedigree and the obvious technological advances demonstrated by her recordings.

After listening to the Conlon Nancarrow piece a couple of times I found an interview with him here, in which he says: "That’s what I don’t understand with many musicians and music lovers. They always want something different, and they never say that they would like to have War and Peace different each time or Rembrandt’s this or van Gogh’s that or the Shakespeare sonnets different each time. It’s there! But they insist that each time a piece of music is played, it should be different. I don’t understand why."

To retort with a cliché, variety is the spice of life! I think the popularity of e.g. fan fiction and pop art, not to mention classical music's own variations on themes, testify to the public's appetite for, well, variations on a theme. Every generation rediscovers art through its own prism. More mundanely, when I bake bread or cake, I get to know a recipe, then I follow it only roughly, using approximate measures in cups rather than carefully weighed amounts. So it's slightly different every time, and I like it that way. This is similar to what happens with (some) music - I learn it first, then play around - but it's antithetical to what was required in science, where precise reproducibility is key!

Sorry, I've really waffled on there. By the way, what you wrote about computer generated faces is known as the Uncanny Valley. Maybe you're familiar with the theory. It's a useful analogy but it's difficult to tell how closely it applies to music, since our aural and visual senses have developed so differently.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Stan, there's no space limits on comments here! So please feel free to "waffle" as much as you like, and I must point out that I would not categorise your observations by that term. I should apologise, though, for as I've just fallen in the door from work, and have a splitting headache as well as a million and one things to do between now and tomorrow night, I won't be able to give your comments a measured response until Wednesday. But you've given me plenty to chew on... (and I love the phrase "uncanny valley"). Cheers, Doubtful.

Claudia said...

I like what you presented, and the look at Nancarrow's music studio.

I also went to his 'Study #7', as my son (a classical trumpet player), when practising, sometimes would switch from "Trumpet Voluntary" to his own fantaisist improvisations. It was mostly (he said) to test his technical virtuosity. It sounded so much out of the ordinary, and yet, quite interesting, that (without his knowledge) I taped some.

Listening to it now, and to Nancarrow, I think they would have been very happy working together.The trumpet is really dizzying at the end of 'Study #7'.

I read that Nancarrow's music for piano player is being transcribed for regular instruments, by popular demands. He had a great life (didn't he?) being rather ignored, and isolated, for many years, but still doing what he truly loved.

Stan said...

Doubtful, thank you for the offler to waffler. You may regret it. I'm sorry to hear about your headache, and hope the pain passes quickly, or at least allows you to get the essentials done. (Replying to this is not one of them.) I had a headache on Sunday, my first for many months, incurred after spending Saturday wearing a gown and a mask in a smoky shed in Offaly. In other words I was asking for it. Whether you were or not, you have my sympathies.

There is an excellent introduction to the uncanny valley here, which years ago I adapted (with permission) for a meandering treatise on psychology, robotics and horror films. The idea comes from Masahiro Mori, who wrote an interesting little book called "The Buddha and the Robot".

I listened to Study #7 a few times too, and liked it a lot. Delighted to have been introduced to Nancarrow. There is a radio documentary here about composers he influenced. Downloaded for later enjoyment!

darren said...

I like the wallpaper.

jams o donnell said...

I like the Nancarrow piece. I had not heard of him before. Thanks!

A Doubtful Egg said...

Stan: I think the use of machines to produce music very much comes down to what the composer's intention is (to create something new and interesting, or just easy listening). Nancarrow's quote is interesting because I feel he's not comparing like with like; a piece of music is simply a score that is performed and interpreted, in the same way that a play is, while a painting or a novel is the artistic object itself. Recording has to a certain degree changed that, but the fun of music is hearing different interpretations and choosing your favourite! Even the sound of Nanacarrow's pieces, which are programmed, must depend on the pianos they're played through, so they're never quite "the same"! Thanks for the link to the documentary, and I won't ask what you were doing in the smoky shed!

Claudia: I've not heard the transcriptions of Nancarrow's works (I know the Ensemble Modern did a few a while back) but I imagine they're quite an experience. Although I imagine some of the more complex ones must defy such treatment! I saw a late piece by Stockhausen for solo trumpet last year in London; I'm sure your son would have been fascinated, for the technique if nothing else. It looked really hard!

Darren: I think such wallpaper has been banned by EU regulations...

Jams: Glad you liked it. When I first came across Nancarrow I loved the idea of his music, but the more I hear of it, the more I like it. A true original, like Harry Partch...

Stan said...

Doubtful: I agree that Nancarrow is not comparing like with like. It seems a kind of category error on his part. But as well as music being in the intent of the composer, it is also in the ear of the beholder: some hear Stockhausen as nothing but unpleasant noise; some hear music in the sound of a kettle boiling.

To add to your point about Nancarrow's music never being quite the same: any piece of music is heard differently every time it is heard, because it exists in its relationship with the listener, and the listener changes from moment to moment. There are no identical phenomena or experiences in nature any more than there are straight lines!