Thursday, October 18, 2012

Is that George Gershwin, or do I need to get the bug spray?

The Movement of George Gershwin’s Left Hand Playing Rhapsody in Blue, by Adrian Göllner.

(From an article entitled The Movement of George Gershwin's Left Hand Playing Rhapsody in Blue, by Adrian Gollner, published in The Movement of George Gershwin's Left Hand Playing Rhapsody in Blue, by Adrian Gollner)

Göllner’s second set of drawings use antique voices of a different kind, relics not of people but of technology long gone. He made them using a Steinway player piano. (Steinway made player pianos – who knew?)

The “reproducing piano” was born in the early years of the 20th century, and though the technology would soon be killed by radio and Gramophone and the stock-market crash of the 1920s, for a few years it was the wealthy audiophile’s answer to hearing high-quality music at home. What a marvel it must have seemed.

The piano would not simply record the touch of the pianist on the keys, as would a typical player piano. Using complex and then state-of-the-art mechanics, the reproducing piano measured the pianist’s every touch of the keys and pedals, and fed the information through a wire to another device that would meticulously punch holes (notes) into rolls of paper. It was, more or less, an early computer.

“It wasn’t just a sequence of keys that plunked out and played some saloon tune,” Göllner says. “This allowed you to have a faithful reproduction of Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Gustav Mahler.”

Göllner found the reproducing piano in the Ottawa home of a retired scientist, and he attached a pen to the individual parts that measure left hand, right hand, soft pedal and sustain pedal. As rolls of music played through the piano, each measuring device made drawings on paper. So a recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – played almost 100 years ago by the composer – became four drawings. Ditto for Rachmaninoff playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, and other pieces by Debussy and Mahler.

The drawings are abstract scribbles but are distinct from one another, the left hands by times drawn as firm and dark, the right hands typically lighter and softer. “It had to re-emulate the physical movements of the person playing the piano . . . the timing, the expression, the finger work, the pedal work,” says Göllner, who has captured those physical movements of a century ago in an entirely new way.

Blogger's note. I have no trouble with player-piano-diagram-tracing as an art form. It's piano rolls I don't like. What I don't like about them is . . . the sound. It's shallow and mechanical, as if there's no one actually there at the keyboard. Which there isn't. The keys sound like they're being pulled rather than pushed. A piano is a stringed instrument anyway, so nothing mechanical is ever going to do it, any more than those hideous violin machines we sometimes hear in music museums.

What baffles me is why we don't have actual recordings by Gershwin: he was born well within the time when such technology was available, and by the time of his death in 1937, recording quality was quite advanced. We could have had dozens and dozens of these, recordings of him banging out Hitchy-Koo, Babbit and Bromide, Fill Up the Saucer till it Overflows, and all those immortal classics. Movies would've been even better: we could have actually seen that patrician sneer with its prominent Hapsburg lip.

It could be argued that a piano roll is better than nothing. But why this strange phenomenon, this "drawing" derived from what is, after all, a mechanical pseudo-piano playing pseudo-Gershwin? Because it's weird, is why, no one has done it before, and it's kind of neat, though we can't explain exactly why.

Yes, I know they look like bugs, but they're so much more than that. This has emboldened me to invent more ideas for new art forms, either "found" or manufactured. . .

Rhapsody in Grey by G. Gershwin

Why won't my Pen Work? Original scribble by G. Gershwin

Portrait of Ira by G. Gershwin

When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em (When You’ve Got ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em), But What Are They?, by G. Gershwin

Has Anybody Here Seen George? by G. Gershwin


  1. I have to say, those Gershwin thingies are just about the strangest form of "artwork" I've ever seen. They amount to scribbles on paper that anyone could fake. I want to get a flyswatter. Gifs are improving from those days when all you could find were little glittering kitttens.