Magical mechanics : the player piano in the age of digital reproduction
Wente, Allison Rebecca
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By the early twentieth century the machine aesthetic was a well-established and dominant interest that fundamentally transformed musical performance and listening practices. While numerous scholars have examined this aesthetic in art and literature, musical compositions representing industrialized labor practices and the role of the machine in music remain largely unexplored. Moreover, in recounting the history of machines in musical recording and reproduction, scholars often tend to emphasize the phonograph, rather than player piano, despite the latter’s prominence within the newly-established musical marketplace. Although the player piano failed to maintain a stronghold in the recorded music marketplace after 1930, the widespread acceptance of recording technologies as media for storing and enjoying music indicates a much more fundamental societal shift. This dissertation is an exploration into that shift, examining the rise and fall of the player piano in early twentieth-century society. As consumers accepted mechanical replacements for what previously required an active human laborer, ghostly, mechanical performers labored tirelessly in parlors, businesses, and even concert halls. Through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples of mechanical sounds in music, and of music imitating or scoring machines, along with a cultural historical overview of the player piano and its environment, Chapter 1 explores the background information necessary for an analysis of mechanical music. Chapter 2 organizes mechanical music into three categories: (1) music written to sound like or imitate the machine; (2) music written to record and reproduce the skills of virtuoso performers; and (3) music written specifically for machines. This chapter addresses a diverse variety of audiences and spaces to make clear the widespread influence of the machine on musical culture. Chapter 3 includes a sonic analysis of two 1919 recordings Rachmaninoff made of his C# Minor Prelude, one roll one record, framed within a broader theory of memory based on Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory (1896). Chapter 4 steps away from the notes on the page and instead includes several examples of player piano advertisements from 1900-1930, organized into categories based on themes like labor, gender, and education. Finally, chapter 5 touches on the ways in which machine music converges with or diverges from theories of absolute music.