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    Rex Lawson and the Pianola
Photo © 1995 John Fago

Rex Lawson, the world's foremost exponent of the pianola, the early, foot-operated form of the player-piano was in San Francisco a while ago. Perhaps it would be bad luck to say he took the town by storm, as the heavy, flood-inducing rains that had plagued the Bay Area for much of the month of March, 1995, actually subsided the very afternoon Rex and his assistant Michael Boyd arrived from London. Rex was one of the participants in the second Other Minds Festival where his pianola performance on the final concert of the Festival was warmly received by both audience and critics.

Lawson was born in London, England, on April 3, 1948, and the piano was there from the start: his parents, two talented amateur musicians, had met through playing piano duets. His education was at Dulwich College and Nottingham University, where he studied Music and French-his attempts to pursue a course of study which combined music and electronics (although common enough a thing nowadays) were thwarted by the administration of his university.

Photo © 1998 Jeanne Newman

Rex began his career in music administration and was first an orchestra manager in middle England. A long-standing fascination with player-pianos led him to organize for his orchestra a performance in 1972 of Edvard Grieg's Concerto for piano and orchestra with Percy Grainger as the soloist. The valiant Mr. Lawson was undaunted by the fact that Grainger, at that time, had been dead for over ten years. The performance featured Rex peddling the reproducing-piano roll of the Concerto which Grainger had made, and its success led Rex on to organizing and presenting further performances of posthumous pianists. His administrative career was transformed into a full-time commitment to the pianola as Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), George Gershwin (1898-1937), Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), and others returned to concertizing via Rex's fine pedaling.

On a pianola, the human player is in control of tempo and phrasing (by means of a lever which controls the speed of the music roll's movement) as well as dynamic variations (by means of varying the force used in pedaling). These are the features which contribute to the pianolist being a true performing musician. A player-piano roll designed for use with a pedal-operated pianola is transcribed directly from a musical score. This differs from the situation with the (perhaps better-known) reproducing piano, where the music roll is set in motion by an electric motor and all musical details—reflecting an actual recorded performance by a pianist— are encoded on the roll itself. Although a pianolist may pedal a recorded reproducing roll on a pianola, a roll designed for use on a pianola will be musically lifeless when played back on a reproducing piano.

Photo © 1995 Jim Newman

The general process by which player-pianos work is probably not unfamiliar. As the music roll-a spool of paper encoded with punched holes-is unwound, the paper passes over a brass or wooden block called a "tracker-bar." This bar is pierced with one hole per note of the piano65 in the earlier player-pianos and 88 in the later industry standardand when a perforation in the roll corresponds with a hole on the tracker-bar, air is then allowed to pass through that hole and down a small tube. The air activates a pneumatic valve mechanism which channels suction to a small bellows. As the bellows collapses, motion is generated which causes a mechanical "finger" to strike a piano key.

As "the world's only concert pianolist," Rex's performances have included his participation in the world premiere of Stravinsky's Les Noces in its original 1919 version (which includes pianola, harmonium and cimbalom), conducted in Paris by Pierre Boulez, and in the revival performance of Ballet Mécanique by George Antheil, at Carnegie Hall, New York City. He is also one of the few pianolists in the world who can perform as a pianola soloist in piano concerti. In London, Rex manufactures and publishes music rolls for player-pianos under his own Perforetur label, which he operates with Michael Boyd, and is co-founder and co-director of the Pianola Institute. Among his CD recordings of pianola music are Antheil's Ballet Mécanique (MusicMasters Classics 01612-67094-2),a collection including Stravinsky's own pianola versions of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring as well as his only work written expressly for pianola solo, the Study for Pianola (MusicMasters Classics 01612-67138-2), and his recently released The Virtuoso Pianolist (Other Minds/CD 1001-2) featuring Stravinsky's own pianola version of Les Noces, along with works by Lutoslawski, Rachmaninoff, Widor, Handel, and Sullivan/Mackerras.

You can read Mitchell Clark's interview with Rex Lawson here.