Piano Music without Limits: Original Compositions of the 1920s

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MDG Scene's Player Piano Vol. 4: Piano Music without Limits, curated by Jürgen Hocker, is devoted to early player piano works that historically serve as "impressive examples of early twentieth century machine aesthetics and may also be regarded as the forerunners of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano." It examines a number of European compositions written directly for player piano systems; Stravinsky, Malipiero, and Casella's compositions for the Aeolian, George Antheil's Ballet mécanique as adapted by Hocker, Petr Kotik's 1974 realization of a Marcel Duchamp score, and works commissioned by the firm of M. Welte & Sons for the Donaueschingen Festivals of 1926 and 1927. Igor Stravinsky's Étude for Pianola, once deemed "lost," is not only found but, by 2007, was somewhat familiar through previous recordings both as a multi-hand work and played from its roll. In Hocker's realization, the glissandi are realized as a wash of hammers rather than consisting of distinct notes; rather different from Rex Lawson's approach as employed on his MusicMasters album Igor Stravinsky: Pianola Works. In general, playback tempi of the rolls are quite fast, perhaps to exaggerate the "machine aesthetics," perhaps not -- it is hard to tell.

The selections that make truly successful use of the medium are the works by Alfredo Casella, Hindemith's Toccata, and Ernst Toch's Studie IV: Der Jongleur; all of these are, in fact, "without Limits." Malipiero's Tre Improvvisi per Pianola make use of almost postmodern sounding ostinati and widely spaced leaps; however, it is pretty close to being realizable by human hands. Indeed, Lopatnikoff's Scherzo as heard here was ultimately retooled for human delivery. Among the unknown names, the two rolls by composer Hans Haass are a real find -- they are exclusively concerned with stretching the player piano beyond human capabilities and finding new textures. Less so the mediocre rolls by Gerhart Münch, which appear to have been conceived on a "compose as you cut the roll" basis; they are, as Hocker admits, rather conservative in this company. The score material for Marcel Duchamp's The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even. Erratum musical mentions the player piano as one possible option among several; Petr Kotik's realization is as valid as any one made, though his later edition for music boxes is a tad more compelling than this one for player piano.

Hocker's realization of George Antheil's Ballet mécanique is the main sticking point here; after arguing that the original 1924-1925 version of Ballet mécanique was written for four pianists, not for player pianos, and minus the percussion parts, Hocker presents his MIDI-driven player piano reduction of the work as restated for two player pianos. Whatever Hocker's historical reasoning behind the daunting task of plugging the hundreds of thousands of notes in Antheil's score into a MIDI file, one thing that cannot be said about any other version of Ballet mécanique is that it is dull and monochromatic: Hocker's is. The recently discovered fragment Mécanique No. 1 exists as a roll only and not in score form; it appears to be related to Antheil's Sonata Sauvage (1922). The date given for this roll, 1920, is improbable, but it is still highly interesting. Player Piano Vol. 4: Piano Music without Limits is a very comprehensive study of an important subgenre of twentieth century music, the mechanical equivalent of a field of artistic expression that later became supplanted by electronic music; the best parts of it should prove extremely useful and highly entertaining to fans of mechanical music and so-called "dead technologies."

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