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A lot has been written and surmised about the so-called "Reproducer," which was called a "reproducing piano" in it's day. Terminology and modern criticisms notwithstanding, the reproducing pianos were absolutely amazing. Let me explain a few things that perhaps not even many experts really understand in a balanced manner on the subject. (By the way, I have no objection to calling them "reproducers," inasmuch as it is used as a singular noun for "reproducing piano" which is merely the official descriptive adjective, rather than a name (noun). Be my guest-- use the noun. Call it what you like-- a good one is fantastic.
There is no reason to apologize for a good pneumatic reproducer. For example, the Ampico model B was able to easily replicate the dynamics of the artist to such an extent that the range of pianistic ability extended from pppp to ffff. Or in other words, from the softest a piano is able to play, to the loudest that piano is able to play. All reproducers are astounding instruments, capable of impressing even the New York art critics at Carnegie Hall where they performed many times in their large concert grand counterparts.
There have been some doubts cast about the authenticity of reproducing music, so it should be noted that many of these doubts have their basis in fact! For example, many rolls were made by "formula" coding. That is, instead of the extreme amount of time required to really get a roll authentic-sounding, they accepted it for sale with a nominal amount of expression and pedaling effects. That means, while it is still a good rendition, and contains plenty of dynamics, it is not what the company would call a definitive artistic work. This was found most often within popular music, dance numbers, transcriptions, and medleys. However, any time a world-famous classical artist was recorded, the story was different. These were the rolls the company based its reputation and advertising upon. If they were poor quality or boring, they would not sell their pianos or their rolls. So it was primarily (but not altogether) the classical rolls that created and maintained the company's reputation. The highest standards were absolutely essential if a company was to amass and retain a stable of world-famous artists, whose own reputations hinged on those with whom they allied themselves.
In the teens and twenties, good music was widely appreciated. Imagine a nation whose piano output equaled or exceeded the babies born in a few of those years! Probably 60% of American homes owned a piano of some kind, and possibly 30-40% of those upright models were a player piano. Of course, even more of the reproducers were grand pianos. There was scarcely a home with children and a piano in which at least one child didn't take music lessons or play an instrument. As a result, there were millions of music teachers, and tens of thousands of top notch instructors of music in all categories. So the appreciation level of good music (referring to the classics, as well as timeless, expertly and sensitively played music in all categories) was far greater than what we have today!
There is no comparison between their musical knowledge per capita. All one can say is, perhaps, "Well, they had a different style than what is accepted today." That is right. Nor do the Watusi care particularly for our style. That doesn't deprecate ability or musicianship of either.
The dynamics of a piano truly lends itself to such dramatic live performances that it is actually spooky. These players can reproduce an artist so very well that one can, on occasion, believe that he is actually listening to the very fingers of Paderewski or Hofmann. But even the classical rolls vary in their ability to convey this form of virtual reality. Probably about 10% of the rolls in that category are unusually exceptional in this capacity, although the rest of the field are quite acceptable. We are speaking very critically.
One of the most common failings of the reproducing piano will always be its restored condition and regulation. Very few pianos today are really set up sensitively enough to perform great music. But in its heyday, when the knowledge was fresh and the art was strong, one of these piano's strongest critics, namely Sergei Rachmaninoff said, after listening to his first Ampico roll, "I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play!" They asked if they might quote such an astonished reaction, and since then, the story as been repeated innumerable times.
Ignace Jan Paderewski (later to become president of Poland), said of the Duo-Art, "Through the Duo-Art and its rolls, a student may acquire an intimate knowledge of the style of leading pianists, may hear the subtleties of great master works expounded by the most competent authorities." An ad? Yep! Insincere? I don't think so. Let me put it this way: If I were one of the top ten leading concert artists in the world out of literally hundreds of top concert artists, accepted in and trusted by all society, why would I shill a debauched product for a few more bucks and trash an otherwise impeccable musical reputation of 30 years? We need to consider the consequences of insincerity to future generations. I believe that great men and women do consider that-- very highly.
It is difficult then to believe that Sergei and Ignace could acknowledge as authentic what a few so-called critics today cannot. Unless, of course, their piano is not quite as good as they believe, and are listening to a compromised performance.
It has been said that a good reproducer allows the listener to identify the artist playing without knowing firsthand who it was. Well, this is true, but frankly, individual characteristics are heard, not so much by the dynamics, but by what I call the four horseman of individualism: Phrasing, Pedaling, Rubato, and Luster. You can hear all four of these characteristics even with the dynamics turned off!
You might wonder what I mean by "luster." Not knowing a better term, what I call luster is partly his chord and interval structure choices, and all the preferences an artist likes to use, or the tones he favors, whether he uses a heavy bass with large chords, or definitive counter-melodies, things like that. All of these elements are analogous to the way a person speaks. Once you know a person you can identify them immediately by their speech patterns, even when you can't hear what they are saying. Their typical inflection and intonation carries over into their delivery regardless what they may be speaking about, even the way in which they "drag out" certain tones in their voice. Likewise, a person's piano playing. Let them speak in a monotone, and you can still tell the sound of their voice.
Identifying a particular artist really isn't that hard to do if you are familiar enough with that artist. But that isn't, and never was, the main attraction. A great reproducing piano playing a great roll will leave you excited, appreciative, and wanting to hear more. If, after listening to several rolls haphazardly, you are bored and ready to do something else, it is often because of the instrument's regulation, and not your own personal mood--even though you may not be able to exactly put your finger on the problem. The player mechanism cannot compensate for instrument deficiencies, and the roll cannot compensate for player deficiencies. I have never known any owner who, once deciding to get a better performance, wasn't able to have it done finally to his satisfaction!
These instruments are very sublime and sensitive when it comes down to concert quality regulation, and require a musical background and understanding of the many subtle details and the art of minute mechanical compromise to get a true performance that is detailed to the degree that it is, as I said, "spooky." I have never failed to be amazed, myself.
So though we may be able to identify the artist, we otherwise are less impressed, unless that instrument is mechanically and artistically regulated to precision. At only that point, the instrument can be remarkable, having such power of performance that even the finest of world-class musicians are greatly impressed.
One world-renown concert artist from Italy recently wanted his picture taken lying on his back underneath the reproducing piano he had just given a 45 minute concert on, admiring the mechanism he had heard earlier!
All the pathos of this virtual reality as held and heard in the heart of that roll artist, was expressed by the dynamics in his fingers. Those feelings then, with the most subtle and gentle of nuances are delivered again first-hand by a paper roll that replays it directly on your piano! All one can really say of a performance of this caliber is, "amazing."
Granted, many have every right to be cynical and sneering, particularly those who own one. They may comment that these claims are extremely exaggerated, but all I can say is, they are speaking for their own instruments and those they have heard otherwise. They are speaking to their own roll collection and their own appreciation of music, music styles, and personal bias. But I have restored these instruments now for over 30 years and am continually amazed at them. I just recently decided to say something instead of letting a few jaded owners and critics take the floor.
I was playing a roll for a professional organist recently. It was Paderewski's own version of his Minuet,. Ampico 71801B. I wish you could have seen his face when it finished. "Wow!" Was all he managed to say. He couldn't believe what he had just heard. Now I asked myself, "What had such a powerful effect on this man" because he had been visibly shaken, emotionally. "Was it the pedaling?" Nope. "Was it the Phrasing?" No again. "Besides all of those characteristics which identified Paderewski, it was the unbelievable dynamics!" That's what did it.
It's the earmarks, not the dynamics of an artist's playing, that identify him. But his true dynamics is what puts him right in your face!
I have heard many technical arguments that, for example, any chord or interval with soft and loud notes cannot be duplicated. That, of course could not possibly be true, because that is one of the most important nuances of artistic piano playing that there is. And while it requires a considerable amount of extra time and effort to edit those effects, the effort is worth the time when it is done. All one has to remember are the immortal words "Gentlemen, I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play." Either he was a fraud and a fake, or, he wasn't. Those who knew him and heard him would not call him a fake.
One of the very nicest things about owning a pneumatic reproducer is that, once restored correctly and solidly regulated, it will stay that way with only a few adjustments for several decades without attention. Tuning and occasional minor regulation (such as any piano in the modern climate-controlled home), is all that is necessary on average to keep them playing for half a century.
These players are fun, but more than that, they are great! And anyone who demeans their intrinsic abilities and power to duplicate anyone's playing are demonstrating a limited capacity of appreciation while deprecating the great artists' reputations, in effect calling them fraudulent, recognition seekers, insincere, and much less, "artists."
Expect a lot. Demand a lot. Get what you expect. Then you can, with confidence, listen to what has become one of the greatest inventions for musical education of this or any other century. With it, you will be able to both step back into the musical past, and take it with you into the future. There is so much to appreciate.
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