Hedy's Folly

Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes Read Free Book Online

Book: Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes Read Free Book Online
Authors: Richard Rhodes
performed on a player piano was recorded on a roll of tough paper. Technicians cut holes and slots into the paper roll by hand, following the notations on the sheet music. In operation, the roll was loaded onto spools in the player piano much as recording tape is wound reel to reel. Pumping the pedals then scrolled the punched paper over a row of vacuum ducts—small holes, one for each piano key, in a brass bar called a tracker bar that looked much like an extremely long harmonica. The spooling paper covered the tracker ducts, holding the mechanism behind them at rest, until a hole or slot in the paper allowed air to be sucked into the duct. A rubber tube connected the tracker duct to one of a series of valve chests. The air flowing from the tube into the valve chest activated a sequence of valves and bladders that drove up a pushrod that in turn actuated the piano key.
    The piano rolls cut by hand following sheet music notations reproduced music purely mechanically; they did not program changes in tempo or dynamics. Player-piano operatorshad to adjust these qualities in real time, pumping more or less vigorously and manipulating a tempo lever. Some piano rolls featured a printed expression line that wavered up or down as the roll turned to direct the player’s adjustments. These adaptations distracted from listening and still failed to reproduce an authentic professional performance. To improve the quality of recordings, manufacturers developed reproducing pianos with electric motors to drive the pneumatics, up to sixteen dynamic levels between soft and loud, and multitrack piano rolls that could register and generate the variations. It then became possible for a pianist or composer to record a musical work with some confidence that its player-piano reproduction would approximate his performance.
    Pleyel had contacted Stravinsky in 1921 to propose that he transcribe his works for the Pleyela reproducing piano. The company offered him the use of a suite of rooms in its building in Paris and technical support. He quickly decided to accept the offer, he wrote, for two reasons:
In order to prevent the distortion of my compositions by future interpreters, I had always been anxious to find a means of imposing some restriction on the notorious liberty … which prevents the public from obtaining a correct idea of the author’s intentions. This possibility was now afforded by the rolls of the mechanical piano.…
There was a second direction in which this workgave me satisfaction. This was not simply the reduction of an orchestral work to the limitations of a piano of seven octaves. It was the process of adaptation to an instrument which had, on the one hand, unlimited possibilities of precision, velocity, and polyphony, but which, on the other hand, constantly presented serious difficulties in establishing dynamic relationships. These tasks developed and exercised my imagination.
    After the Les noces premiere, Antheil recalled, “the next day we went to see him at Pleyel’s … and Stravinsky himself played Les noces , this time on an electric pianola. I liked the second version even better than the one which we had heard last night; it was more precise, colder, harder, more typical of that which I myself wanted out of music during this period of my life.” He told Stravinsky it was wonderful. Boski concurred.
    A day or two later, abruptly, Stravinsky dropped him, refused his calls, made no answer to an inquiring letter. Antheil learned from a mutual friend that the composer had taken umbrage over reports that Antheil had claimed they were close friends, that Stravinsky admired his music, and that the two had spent all their time together in Berlin. “Months later I encountered him at a concert,” Antheil writes ruefully, “but his steely monocle bored straight through me.” The two friends did not reconnect for more than a decade.
    The incident depressed Antheil “tremendously,” herecalled. “It haunted my dreams

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