Stanford Symphony takes on piano robot

Rex Lawson controls an electric-powered piano-playing robot, a cabinet with a roll-playing mechanism inside and mechanical fingers sticking out the back.

The great Australian pianist Percy Grainger performed the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jindong Cai, at Bing Concert Hall on Saturday.

That’s a surprising statement. Percy Grainger died over half a century ago. But his pianism lives on, in the form of a piano roll of the solo part made of his playing in 1921. Grainger was embodied in an electric-powered piano-playing robot, a cabinet with a roll-playing mechanism inside and mechanical fingers sticking out the back. Place the robot in front of an ordinary Steinway grand, and the mechanical fingers play the keyboard, albeit not easily visibly to the audience. Volume and pedals are also controlled by the roll.

The concert was the culmination of a Stanford symposium, two days of talks about everything from what the piano rolls of the pupils of Liszt say about the composer’s practice in his music, to the technical challenges of digitally scanning rolls for preservation and dissemination. Stanford has gotten seriously involved in the study and preservation of piano rolls since purchasing last year a huge trove of 7,450 early 20th century rolls and 10 players (Like vintage software, vintage piano rolls are not compatible between manufacturers). This collection was the lifelong hobby of the late Denis Condon, an Australian music teacher. The staff at Stanford’s Archive of Recorded Sound is now engaged in cataloging and preserving these rolls, and others recently purchased, with plans to digitize them in the future.

At the concert, it was as eerie to watch the robot sitting impassively in front of the busy piano as it must have seemed when this technology was new a century ago. Despite no visible movement at the piano, a vivid and immediate performance was coming out. As Rex Lawson, a British scholar of piano rolls, said at the conference, where early recordings are like early photographs, piano rolls are like portraits. Technically, the former are better likenesses, but the latter often better capture the illusion of life.

Grainger was more varied in tempo and expression than the orchestra tended to be in piano-less passages. Coordination became a bit of a challenge where the piano was playing subordinately, since the one thing the reproducing piano can’t do is respond to the orchestra and conductor.

This isn’t a problem in unaccompanied piano music. The indefatigable robot went on to give such performances by three great pianist-composers — Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Gershwin — in their own works. All were as expressive as Grainger. Gershwin’s “Sweet and Low Down” in particular was jazzy, more so than his phono-recordings.

The concert also featured another kind of player piano, the pianola. It’s a similar cabinet which also fits in front of a regular piano, except that this one is foot-pumped by a human player. The vigor of the pumping controls the volume, and there are hand-levers for speed and the piano’s pedals. Rolls made for these, rather than expressive performances by great pianists, are simple transcriptions of the score. Interpretation is the pianola player’s job.

Rex Lawson, the world’s leading virtuoso on this forgotten instrument, was that performer. He put real character into rolls of pieces by Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, and rammed through an elaborate canon composed expressly for the player piano by the American composer Conlon Nancarrow.

Lawson also participated in a newly written concerto, “Ayayay!” by the Venezuelan-British composer Julio d’Escriván. Lawson’s pianola was accompanied by percussion and winds, plus computer and iPhone sounds manipulated by d’Escriván on stage. Composed largely by programming complex sound patterns into a computer and transcribing what came out, the concerto is choppy, pulsating, continuously-running music that seemed frequently accompanied by an iPhone going off, as indeed it was.

Perhaps just to prove that there is still a place for live pianists, the concert concluded with an unmechanized performance of Rachmainoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” The solo part was played by Stanford undergraduate Ben Mildenhall with precise, warmly ringing sonorities and a notably gentle slowness in the famously lyrical 18th variation. Cai led the excellent student orchestra with spirit and clarity.

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