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From Freiberg to Poughkeepsie: The Welte-Mignon Rolls in the Denis Condon Collection of Player Pianos and Rolls

Date and Time: 
Friday, May 20, 2016. 03:00 PM - 06:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Dinkelspiel Auditorium
Workshop: 
The Material Imagination: Sound, Space, and Human Consciousness
Meeting Description: 
Speaker:
Kumaran Arul (Lecturer in Music) and Jerry McBride (Head Librarian of the Music Library and Archive of Recorded Sound) will present this talk.
 
Reproducing piano rolls created a sensation when unveiled in Leipzig in 1905 by the Freiberg based firm Welte und Söhne. Welte’s Mignon disrupted the established market for rolls, especially those that required a performer’s input through a type of hybrid interactive machine, the pianola.  Rolls for the pianola were digital transcripts of a musical score – just the notes and rhythms – converted to a paper scroll format derived from music boxes.  The pneumatic mechanism, played in real time by the pianolist, breathed life into the keys of a piano, guided by the punched holes of the music on the roll.  Welte’s innovation however gambled on a new aspiration – a ‘human’ performance from a machine – coded on the roll, using an ingenious propriety system that recorded and then reproduced expression.  The technical achievement was astonishing then as now and inspired wonder as the keys of the instrument played by themselves, virtually recreating the sound of a skilled performer.
 
Welte’s ‘expressive machine’ highlights the growing interaction of technology in the environment of idealist art.  On the one hand, expression rolls recorded and preserved music and musicians for posterity, being in many cases the only surviving sounding documents of important composers and performers.  To hear them come to life is like traveling back in time, tones from a distant past.  On the other hand, the limitations of the record/write process yield artifact errors requiring filtering, correction, or assimilation.  These defects are further hidden amidst exotic, idiomatic performance stylisms that have been for years incorrectly interpreted as errors.  In an era where music existed in a flexible ontological space between scores, performers, and sounds, neither the flaws of the machine, nor ‘errors’ of the artists were of great consequence.  But with an increasing need for accuracy, fidelity, and the reliable musical work, the art of the roll era became gradually obsolete.  With it was also lost the rich vernaculars of a vital transitional phase of music making in the west.

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