This I Believe

Randolph - Forest Hills, New York
Entered on June 6, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: creativity

I have always felt that there is a magic to live music that is not there when listening to a recording. One of the countless ways that a person can be gifted is the ability to play music with little or no effort. The rest of us who want to make music spend many hours learning and rehearsing, so that our performance will not be too awful. Unlike the past, the modern miracles of technology have made music as ubiquitous to us as water is to a fish. Let me ask you a question: What do the digital MP3 files have in common with every other recording medium ever created, right back to the wax cylinders of the 1890’s? My answer is that the end product is always some gizmo that vibrates in such a way as to create sound waves that are ANALOGous to the vibrations of real music, played by real people with real feelings. Let me say that like most people, I feel the invention of sound recording and photography are two of the greatest inventions of all time. But most of the music we hear has as much life to it as a photo of Abe Lincoln.

Let me tell you about my way of making music. The conductor of an orchestra typically does not play an instrument; playing the notes is the job of the musicians. Conductors try to transform a bunch of dots on paper to something that will interest and hopefully even excite people. It is the conductors who determine how fast or slow the music is played, how loud or soft it is at any moment. Well, over 100 years ago they invented a machine that allows anyone to “conduct” a performance on a piano, be it a Steinway Concert Grand or an old upright. You do not play any notes. You simply determine how fast or slow the music plays, along with determining how loud or soft it is at any moment. You can play anything from the Hammerklavier Sonata to Maple Leaf Rag. You get to create real music on a real piano, and if you play a piece a second time, you are free to change it as much as you like, unlike a recording that locks you into a performance that is frozen for all time.

This machine, and similar ones that play organs, became available in the 1890’s. The company behind these inventions proudly listed some of their customers: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Louis C. Tiffany, J.P. Morgan and many others. In New York, they had a luxurious showroom and concert hall across 42nd St from the great Public Library on Fifth Avenue.

The company was The Aeolian Company. Their trademarked name for this wonderful machine is The Pianola, and it is not “just another player piano” any more than Steinway is “just another piano”.

Michael Feinstein knows these machines are capable of serious musical performance. When he gave a sold-out concert in Carnegie Hall, he asked me to demonstrate my Pianola by playing a roll that Vincent Youmans recorded in 1924 of songs from his hit show “No No Nanette”.