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    Mitchell Clark Interviews Rex Lawson
Rex Lawson with Conlon Nancarrow

Mitchell Clark: Do you consider the pianola to be a musical instrument in itself, or could it be thought of as a musical "facilitator," while the actual piano is the instrument? For example, I'm thinking in relation to bowed-string instruments, where the bow-which is not a musical instrument per se-is a technology used with a stringed instrument to extend the possibilities of that instrument.

Rex Lawson:
It goes with terminology, that. I tend, as you know, to use the word pianola to mean "foot-operated player-piano." This is not strictly true, as "Pianola" was originally a brand name, but it seemed to me that somebody needed to start doing that, so I have. And inasmuch as playing the pianola includes a piano, it is a musical instrument. But I think you're right: it seems to me, yes, it is a way of playing the piano. It's different from playing it by hand, and it has advantages and

MC: Just as bowing a stringed instrument has its advantages, although you lose certain kinds of subtleties available on a plucked-string instrument.

RL: Yes, it's very similar, really. With the pianola you can actually play fairly simple piano music quite subtly. The more complicated it becomes, the less easy it is to play it with the degree of subtlety you might if you had two performers, say, playing with four hands. But on the other hand, I remember friend and composer David Stanhope saying that he thought the pianola treated the piano like an orchestra. It gives you that sort of orchestral sweep sometimes. Now, you can probably play a Chopin mazurka on a pianola, if you really practice, almost indistinguishably from playing by hand. You obviously want it to sound like playing by hand, because that's how the piano should sound, whether it is by hand or, as with the pianola, by foot.The pianola has its own difficulties in that you are starting out with a device which is totally mechanical and totally unmusical, whereas if you play by hand you are beginning with a human being, who does things through the hands which are quite sub-conscious. The pianola is not a good instrument to teach. It's something one has to find out for oneself: to find out why you're not sounding like a human being and to work that out in your own mind. When professional musicians are confronted by the pianola they often initially think, as someone said during this week, "well, why on earth do you have a pianola player over here when you've got all this MIDI and all the rest of it. Why bother with a pianola player? Pianolas play themselves." Then they begin to realize there's a bit more to it than that. And they probably think, "maybe it would take two or three weeks to come to grips with this instrument." Then you get somebody who does play it for two or three weeks and they think, "wow, maybe this might take a complete year." I think it's a five-, six-, seven-year process, really coming to terms with the pianola, until you are able to play it without thinking too much about it.

MC: Therefore, the pianola is so mechanical that you really have to be very focused, as the player, on the musical qualities that you give to it, and to work hard to pull it all together. Musicians that are playing "live" instruments take a certain amount of that musicality for granted.

RL: Yes. For this program of performances, the focus is intended to be on music specially written for the pianola. Therefore, in a lot of cases, composers who have written for the pianola have had this idea of a mechanical ethos, Stravinsky in particular. Someone commented that the pianola performance I gave of a roll from The Rite of Spring sounded harsh and mechanical. Part of that, I guess, was to do with the fact that the piano was amplified, but nevertheless, Stravinsky obviously had the idea of this rather machine-like music, which I think he probably quite liked. So in that sense, you are having to submit to the ethos of the machine in playing mechanically, or at least in making the music sound mechanical. Actually, there is a subtlety to that. If people listen to somebody playing and say, "that sounds mechanical," they don't necessarily mean that it sounds smooth and beautifully in time like a precise piece of clockwork. Very often what they mean is that it sounds "lumpy," and so what you are trying to avoid, with composers like Stravinsky, is it sounding lumpy. It's not an exactly regular tempo that's the problem. It's inaccuracies, unevenness in that smooth tempo which, curiously enough, people call mechanical. I suppose that is because they think of big clumsy mechanisms when they're thinking of things mechanical.

In playing the music which I very much enjoy - Romantic piano music - one obviously has to think a great deal more and bring the instrument under one's control. There's one thing I miss, though-I imagine playing by hand must be an almost sensual thing for pianists. I guess things like rubato and the spreading of chords must have a very tactile response to them, which obviously you miss to a degree with the pianola. But then there are lots of things you can do in the range of notes you can play. The pianola's simply part of the spectrum of musical instruments.

Playing the piano itself is an activity that involves the whole body. But to put it crudely for a moment: a pianist is expected to supply fingers and interpretation. For the pianolist, interpretation still includes such things as dynamics, phrasing, and tempo changes, but the fingers are taken care of. Now, your own pianola playing is very tasteful musicianship but is there a danger for pianolists to go all out in the area of interpretation, and exaggerate phrasing and dynamics as if they feel they need to justify the absence of finger virtuosity?

RL: Very good question. Yes. I, in playing Romantic music, probably sound a bit over the top to present-day ears, but that's simply because I'm used mainly to listening to earlier recordings on reproducing-piano rolls and 78s. And I happen to think that piano playing is rather anemic these days, so I like playing like that. But one may find pianolists, not particularly good, who are constantly playing around with the tempo lever, clearly overdoing things.

For example, there is player-piano music by Italian composers, written around 1920 - what they called futurist music. The Germans had a name for a similar sort of thing - they called it Inzaltemusik, "music devoid of soul." Paul Hindemith wrote a piece of Inzaltemusik, but the way he had the roll cut, he did extend the first beats of bars in a number of cases, so it wouldn't sound completely machine-like. Now this is a huge topic, but musicologists these days are very keen to read, shall we say, theory books of fifty or hundred years ago, and read them with present-day eyes and ears and comprehension. They'll read that someone didn't like rubato, and they'll say, "ah! well it's quite right these days, we obviously have to play such and such without rubato." But they forget that this person was writing fifty or hundred years ago, when the whole ballgame, or whatever you like to call it, was different. What the writer was complaining about was people who used excessive rubato in a particularly misunderstanding way. But they weren't complaining about the sensitive and right use of rubato-but of course it's taken these days to mean that all such things are wrong. I suppose it's people making up theories and then finding the facts to prove the theory.

So, getting back to answering this question, it's quite clear, in my own mind, that the Italian composers such as Casella and Malipiero wrote music that was to be played pretty much straight. Now that isn't to say that you play it totally machine-like, because a machine would be completely boring. But they wanted to avoid romantic interpretation as suits romantic music but didn't suit their music. It's important when you are a pianola player to respect that sort of thing. You will find players who play this kind of music romantically, doing stupid things. But of course the pianola is not a very well-known instrument, so anybody who hears it says, "oh, well, this is how it must be." And in many ways I wish there were a lot of pianola players around, because then people would be able to judge between one and the other, like they can with pianists. So it certainly is a danger if, as a pianolist, you want to get on the concert platform quickly, and to show that you're doing something and move your hands around, it's very possible to overinterpret the rolls, I think. But the sort of performances I would do of romantic music, I would not consider overinterpreted. It's possible that I personally have a tendency to play loudly sometimes. On that subject, it's very difficult to find pianos that will play quietly with the pianola. I really love to make the notes just whisper, which is quite difficult.

MC: And as I remember you saying, a concert grand with a good stiff action is what would play most ideally.

RL: Well, over the course of this past week, I've played on five different pianos, and they progressively got better. We started off with an upright, but it really had had it.

MC: As I recall, the damper pedal couldn't be engaged by the pianola...

RL: Right. Well, we almost got that to work. But the piano was gone. Then a small grand which was very hard and toppy and rather light; it was better, but again difficult to play quietly. Then each piano was progressively better than the one before, and finally, the one at the Center for the Arts was relatively new and I was very happy on that. You are much more at the mercy of pianos with the pianola than you are by hand.

MC: I imagine it's harder with the pianola to compensate for the individual vagaries of the piano itself. Now, concerning the "player-piano" in general, the "pedaling" style of playing, as in what we now call pianola, preceded the reproducing piano. But by the late 1920s, the reproducing piano had really superseded pedaling.

RL: The reproducing piano was developed in 1904, and the first one came out in 1905, actually. The change of emphasis you're speaking of was different in different countries. In Britain, pedaling pianolas was very popular. The Duo-Art was the main reproducing piano system made by the Aeolian Company, though in England they had pedal-electric Duo-Arts, which meant you could have it automatic, playing reproducing rolls, or you could pedal ordinary rolls on it. The pedal-electric Duo-Art had complicated rotary switches to switch to different types of roll. But who knows why all that happened? I mean, the Americans like mechanical things, the Germans too, I guess. And maybe among the British in those days-this is my best explanation-there was a class of liberally educated English gentlemen who liked interpreting the music in their own way. More so than here in the States. But that's only a very timid guess. It's certainly true that the Aeolian Company in the States used to send back to England for straight, non-recorded classical music rolls, because they gave up making those over here.

MC: The reproducing rolls took over?

Yes, I think so. Well, they took over in high society, but for jazz and ragtimes and sing-alongs you still had the foot-operated pianolas. But really, the pedaling mechanism - the pumping mechanisms as they're called here - on the whole were not as subtle as they were in England. I don't know that one will ever know the answer completely.

MC: So, much of the history of the pianola as a pedaling instrument is an English history?

Yes, I think it is. Writing for pianola, that's another matter. George Antheil wrote for pianola, although his autobiography glosses over everything. He was slightly embarrassed about the Ballet Méchanique and was rather bombastic and self-opinionated, so therefore his own recollections of what happened tended to put a little golden glow, a haze, over it all. But there is a book by Bravig Imbs called something like Reminiscences of Another Young Man, which talks about Antheil. Bravig Imbs was a journalist in Paris in the '20s and is very clear about how the Ballet Méchanique took place. He describes the first play-through of the rolls, which was privately done in Paris at the Playel Company. James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Bravig Imbs, and various others-about a half-a-dozen people-were there. The rolls had more or less come straight off the perforating machine. There was a young lady, presumably about twenty or something, who brought the rolls breathless from the perforating room, and sat down to pedal them. Imbs said that as she played her complexion reddened, and that she was obviously pretty much out of breath by the end of it. Well, I get a bit out of breath myself, but the fact that they had a young lady who did not appear to be an experienced pianola player in charge of playing Ballet Méchanique back to the composer's representatives implies to me that the tradition of pedaling the pianola was not taken as seriously as it was in England, where there were concert pianolists who did concertos with symphony orchestras. I know, for example, that Easthope Martin, who pedaled the pianola in the Grieg piano concerto in 1912 with the London Symphony Orchestra, often made trips abroad to the continent of Europe to give concerts. Why did he bother to do that? Presumably because there were not many pianola players on the continent.

MC: The histories of the player-piano and of the phonograph seem somewhat related, in that each device ended up as a medium of reproducing music, whereas the original intentions were different.

RL: I think capitalism has a lot to do with that. I tend to see things slightly politically. Capitalism rather insists that people should be consumers. I mean, I always notice that with music in England there's this huge amount of funds available for children at school to play in orchestras because that's their education and it's a good thing to educate the young. But when they leave college, it's very much more difficult to remain a member of an amateur orchestra. There are far fewer amateur orchestras, and all the money goes towards encouraging people to go to public concerts, which are much more commercial things. It's as if you should be playing only if you are a professional.

One thing you have to remember with reproducing pianos is that early on they were stunning to listen to. If you listen to a reproducing piano today (if it's working properly - there are maybe two or three in the world that are) it's still very impressive. But in 1905 or 1910, if you think how the phonographs or gramophones were still very primitive, then reproducing pianos must have blown people's minds - I mean, quite fabulous things.

MC: And also for a listener to know that they were hearing a Paderewski or a Rachmaninov...

RL: Yes, the implication to everybody in those days was that that was what they were hearing. If you look back on it, you can see how much the editors had to do to edit the rolls to make them sound right. A friend of mine used to say that reproducing pianos produced "portraits," rather than "photographs," of a person playing. Phonographs produced very much a "photograph."

MC: The player piano, certainly I guess by the end of World War II, had essentially died out as anything other than a novelty.

RL: Yes, I suppose so.

MC: But was there any continuation in England after that period?

RL: Pedaling, I think at least to some degree, is kept going through me, but not just me. Don Wilson, who plays jazz rolls in England - he's in his mid-sixties and he's kept it going. Dennis Hall, another friend, and I have come to it really in the 1970s. I used to know an eighty-or-so-year-old pianola player called Bill Candy, who was a music-roll reviewer for the Musical Times in England. He gave me his entire collection of music rolls which he had mainly free through being a reviewer, with the idea that one day that would end up as a collection of the Pianola Institute, which we founded. He pedaled, not that I heard him that much; I heard a recording of him. And there was another chap who opened my eyes to the fact that you could play the pianola as a musical instrument. Because originally I'd thought it was just a mechanical box of tricks, and you just bang away and these things came out, vaguely, and that you could play symphonies without sounding too bad. But I hadn't a clue that you could phrase and all the rest of it. So I realized from other people that you could do it, but there was no training of any sort. I'm self-taught, I guess.

MC: In its heyday, was there training in England-did pianolists teach pianolists?

A little bit. Reginald Reynolds, who was the chief pianola player in the '20s taught Edward VIII, for example-Prince of Wales, as he was-to play the pianola. But I don't know that it was a very long course of lessons or anything. And actually, it meant a lot to Reynolds, playing the pianola. I think he used to play a bit fast, really. It's a psychological thing, but if you play fast on a pianola it doesn't sound believable, because it's a pianola, and people say "oh, no, nobody can play that fast." But if they hear Horowitz play that fast they say, "oh, isn't he wonderful!"

Do you have any speculations as to where the pianola might have gone musically if its place had not been eclipsed by advances in recording? Did it seem destined for greater things?

RL: It's very difficult to tell, really. In England, I always think that the pianola would have kept going as a foot-operated instrument quite well. But because Aeolian, the American parent company, had to liquidate its assets in order to buy their main competitor, the American Piano Company, they therefore virtually shut down most of the rest of the world. It might well be, had they kept the foot-operated player-piano going, that at least it would have lasted and transferred these days into the electronic era. It seems to me the player-piano has a good future with electronics. I think it will survive because music is so passive these days, on the whole, and it doesn't seem to me that that's very healthy. As a performer it's very nice to be standing up there and playing, but it would be awfully nice to feel that more people were discovering the joys of the pianola at home.