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The Ghost in the Machine: Decoding Gershwin in His Piano Rolls

George Gershwin’s work creating rolls for player piano remains a source of curiosity among scholars and enthusiasts alike. But the more we search for evidence of Gershwin’s individuality and style in this lost technology, the more questions arise about the role of the composer as a visible author of music within the culture of 1910–20s music consumption, and whether during his lifetime these musical artifacts were even perceived as “recordings” at all.

By Sarah Sisk

“In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble,” but the songs of Tin Pan Alley have taken on a timeless aspect: a continuous ripple through decades of orchestral performances, jazz club renditions, romantic movie scenes, coffee shop ambience, even airline commercials. But for all the everlasting familiarity of George Gershwin’s popular tunes, he wasn’t writing them for the ages—he was writing them for a dynamic musical present. Gershwin’s career from the 1910s through the 1930s was propelled by a whirlwind of changes in recording technology, the music industry, and the very culture and consumption of music itself. His engagement with this breakneck evolution led him to produce music in various forms and for various outlets, including sheet music, musical theater, phonograph recordings, radio, and even films. Perhaps most curious and elusive to us today were his piano rolls, a collection of over 140 songs for player piano that he produced between 1915 and 1926. These unique historical remnants, designed for a technological artifact that today is enigmatic to all but a few specialists, show how closely his creative output responded to the historical moments that he navigated, and serve as a tantalizing portal into a lesser-understood chapter of America’s musical past. Within the rolls lies a web of paradox, hybridity, and ambiguity that invites us to reimagine the very way Gershwin’s music was heard and received during his lifetime.

Diagram of a player piano.

Before delving into Gershwin’s exploits with this technology, we must understand exactly what it was. A standard player piano, the machine that plays piano rolls, was a convenient stand-in for a traditional acoustic piano. It was the same size and shape, and it could even be played manually. Unlike a regular piano, it also possessed the remarkable capacity to play programmed music. This programmed music, known as a piano roll, was a spool of long paper marked with a specific arrangement of perforations. It was loaded into a special compartment, typically housed in the upper portion of the piano. The end of the paper was fed into the piano’s take-up spool. As both spools revolved and the paper scrolled from one spool onto the other, the mechanism would “read” the series of punched holes in the paper and convert this analog input into the hammer action on the piano through a system of pneumatic valves. The keys would depress, striking strings and creating sound. The perforations in the paper served as the code that dictated which keys were pressed, when they were pressed, and for how long—thus producing music. A bellows-powered motor operated by the piano’s foot-pedals supplied energy to this pneumatic system. To “play” a piano roll, one simply sat at the bench and pumped the foot pedals. To an observer, the keyboard would appear as though it were being played by an invisible set of hands. While various player piano models allowed the player to manipulate the tempo and dynamics while the music played, the sequence of notes that emanated from the machine was entirely up to the marks on the piano roll.

Artis Wodehouse demonstrates a 1918 Gershwin piano roll being played on an upright Duo Art player piano.

This invention may sound niche and even gimmicky to us today. For the most part, player pianos shimmer in our peripheral imagination of the past, alongside bouncing black-and-white cartoons, empty saloons at high noon, or megaphone announcements of World’s Fair attractions. In pop culture, the player piano has gained some attention through its appearance in the HBO television series Westworld, a genre mashup of Westerns and science fiction set in a pseudo-historical dystopia, whose theme blurs the lines between humanity and autonomy. Indeed, the player piano—a machine capturing human artistic creation—is highly fitting in the context of Westworld‘s themes. When it comes to Gershwin, however, we can leave science fiction aside. Not only was the player piano a widely accepted commodity during his time, it was also big business. The player piano industry, while based on a technology that developed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, saw its first real commercial boom starting in the 1900s. By the 1910s, player piano production rivaled that of traditional pianos. Even as a child, Gershwin was no stranger to this invention—according to family accounts, he surprised everyone with his self-taught piano-playing skills, which he had obtained by experimenting on a player piano at a friend’s house (Pollack 24). The player piano boom also coincided with Gershwin’s entrance into the world of professional music-making. He was fifteen years old in 1914 when he started as a song-plugger at Remick, the Tin Pan Alley music publisher. Just a year later, he branched into making piano rolls for the Standard Music Roll Company’s Perfection label (Pollack 67).

The major music publishing companies at this time competed to expand their libraries with both classical works and popular songs, the latter of which meant keeping up with the flood of new music pouring from the musical theater scene. This was just the thing for Gershwin, who during this period also began working as a theater pianist and started composing his first published songs. Between 1915 and 1926, he made 140 rolls that we know of under a variety of different labels, including Perfection, several Aeolian labels, and Welte-Mignon. Initially, most of the rolls that Gershwin made were songs by other popular songwriters like Irving Berlin and Albert Von Tilzer. But as his own body of compositions (and overall fame) grew, Gershwin’s piano rollography tended more and more towards his own repertoire. By the early 1920s, he was making rolls exclusively of his own music, even while his overall output waned drastically (Pollack 28). The popularity of player pianos continued throughout the 1920s until the Great Depression quashed sales, and the advent of superior recording technology finally rendered them obsolete. By then, Gershwin had already moved on to bigger and better things.

The player piano might not seem like a composer’s first choice to replicate their music, yet Gershwin was far from alone in his attraction to this medium’s capabilities. You may recognize some others: Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, and Sergei Rachmaninov all tried their hand at creating piano rolls during the early 1900s. But why were these leading composers making piano rolls of their works and not simply making phonograph recordings of live piano performance? The phonograph industry was also developing rapidly at this time. Despite its increasing popularity, this technology had a crucial weakness: it could not pick up the sounds of the piano very well. “The deficiencies of the phonograph in the reproduction of piano music are only too well known,” lamented the author of a 1913 Scientific American article. “In most of the vocal productions, the accompaniment, if played on the piano, is often so weak and banjo like [sic] that the piece would not suffer much if it were entirely omitted” (Scientific American 109, no. 16, 1913). When it came to reproducing piano performance, the player piano was the superior alternative.

A player piano displayed in the Bayernhof Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. Note the exposed piano roll compartment and the boxes of piano rolls atop the piano, as well as the limited range of this particular instrument, 2 1/3 octaves less than a standard keyboard.

The player piano also addressed a broader, more curious side effect of the pianos popularity as an instrument. The turn of the 20th century saw thousands of households purchase pianos—for home entertainment, certainly, but also as a symbol of middle-class prosperity. Pianos became increasingly prevalent during this period, even though many of these households lacked a musician with the training to play them skillfully, let alone enjoyably (Wodehouse 210). Player piano manufacturers realized that they could market their product as a way for the average consumer to bypass the labor of musicianship while still being able to engage in the culture of music-making. A person in 1920 could purchase a piano roll of ”Swanee” for about forty cents, take it home to their player piano, and immediately enjoy a brand new tune without studying sheet music or practicing. This illusion succeeded because player piano music sounded more akin to “live” music than recorded music, thanks to the fact that the sound was reproduced on a real instrument. Through their piano rolls, Gershwin and other pianists were essentially commodifying their talents and facilitating what ethnomusicologist Timothy Taylor calls the ”democratization of ability,” selling not just the music itself but the actual experience of live musicianship (Taylor 289). But as the role of the consumer was elevated in the player piano experience, so too was the role of the recording artist diminished. Though piano rolls of his performances were purchased and brought to life in a multitude of different households, Gershwin remained the hidden specter within the machine, his job to project his virtuosic capability onto each consumer for a couple of minutes of musical fulfillment and entertainment.

If this focus on the live-instrumentalist aspect of piano rolls casts a shroud on Gershwin’s visibility as the artist, the process of producing and editing them obfuscates things even more. Creating (known as “cutting”) a piano roll would always begin with a pianist stepping up to a keyboard and playing a tune. The piano used for this purpose was modified with an electrical apparatus so it could transcribe the notes as they were played; the depression of the keys activated a set of pencils that marked a master roll. Once this copy was created, the pencil marks were cut out and could be edited extensively to correct errors, normalize the rhythm, and embellish the original performance with extra notes (Day 12–13). This process opened the door to exciting possibilities that exceeded what a single live pianist could achieve, including chord arrangements that would be impossible to replicate with human fingers and the development of piano roll ”duets.” Many of Gershwin’s piano rolls evince this kind of post-editing wizardry, but the extent of his involvement in this latter part of the process is unclear.

We can access dozens of recordings of Gershwins piano rollography, which have been anthologized by player piano specialist, researcher, and transcriptionist Artis Wodehouse, and published in the 1990s in two volumes as Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls. Yet it may be hard for us to know what to do with the sounds we hear when we listen to this long-lost art form. This music sounds like live piano music, with the fullness and energy of a real, if rigid, piano performance. Technically it is piano music: the sounds came from a real piano, after all. In some of the uptempo recordings, such as “Idle Dreams” (1920), there are even entire stretches that feel natural, as the drive of the rhythm overrides the plodding homogeneity of the hammer strokes. But a sense of voiceless perfection, a lack of microcosmic nuance, and an overall mechanicalness of the recordings ultimately shatter the “live” illusion and return our attention toward their inorganic nature. It’s even more difficult to coax out the personality of Gershwin as the performer of this music. Though scholarly analysis can provide clues about Gershwin’s style and arrangement, the combination of post-performance editing and analog reproduction obscures what traits of a “live” Gershwin performance might linger in the facsimile.

Artis Wodehouse discusses her project creating audio recordings based on Gershwin’s piano rolls.

Besides the pneumatic mechanisms of the player piano and the deconstruction of visible authorship, another thing stands between us and a glimpse of the hidden Gershwin in the piano rolls: ourselves. Our perception is too entrenched in a 21st-century understanding of recorded performance to access this obsolete musical medium the way its original consumers and creators would have understood it. Whether it’s an original work or a composition by another, we implicitly recognize that a musician claims ownership of the music through their performance. In modern recording culture, this ownership is reiterated through artist crediting, labeling, and advertising of the finished material product. But for the piano rolls, the opposite was true: this ownership was relinquished to better facilitate the reproduction of the music and the culture of its appreciation. When we listen to the piano rolls today, we’re accessing this music from across decades of recorded music culture—a culture that was unimaginable at the time of their production. This music was designed not for a passive listener experience, but for an active and energetic social participation centered around live, impermanent music, something which rarely happens within the home today. Our speaker systems and headphone muffs are an ill substitute for the real piano roll experience, one of live, loud, and immediate piano sounds filling the living room, as the lively backdrop to parties, the center of amusement among friends and families gathered within the home, and the point of first contact for new and exciting music. In fact, the majority of the rolls that Gershwin cut were foxtrots, a popular dance of the time. To probe this medium solely as recorded performance is to miss the mark on the experience of listenership the composer offered. In a way, they went further in recreating “live” music than modern recordings do. Instead of memorializing a fixed moment in time, they offered something closer to the real thing: an experience of music defined by its impermanence, designed not to crystalize the moment in which it was created, but to give continual rebirth to the moment in which it was heard.

Somewhere in the shifting, uncertain spaces between listenership and musicianship, skill and amateurism, live music and mechanical reproduction, visible instrumentalism and invisible performance, lurks the presence of Gershwin. If we cannot make these creations work for us as artifacts of the composer’s voice, we can at least use them as a portal into the remarkable way early 20th-century music was accessed and understood by early 20th-century Gershwin fans. They are also a reminder that authorship of music was not always as transparent as we tend to assume. Gershwin’s piano rollography asks us to apply more scrutiny to recorded performance as a whole—to trust it less at face value and consider more deeply how it was made. This is a valuable perspective in a time when new scholarship of Gershwin’s music is unseating long-standing assumptions of how his works were originally written and performed—assumptions that have been reiterated through decades of recorded performances that mainly occurred after Gershwin’s death.

In 2019 the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra highlighted their 125th anniversary concert with a special performance by Gershwin’s ghost. To pull off this conjuring, they revived the technology of the player piano, and using the transcriptions from Gershwin’s 1925 Rhapsody in Blue piano rolls, featured the machine as a soloist with live orchestral accompaniment. This feat echoed pianist and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’s earlier 1976 recording of the work, in which a piano roll performance was accompanied by the Columbia Jazz Band. That night, the audience may not have gotten to see Gershwin perform, but the ghost of the composer was there—as it is in every iteration of his music, whether performed live, recorded, rearranged, adapted, reimagined, streamed, amplified, synthesized, or simply remembered. As Ira Gershwin wrote in 1938,

The radio and the telephone                                                              And the movies that we know                                                                   May just be passing fancies and in time may go…

The piano rolls were already long gone by then, relegated to the graveyard of musical novelty. But the allure that Gershwin created is here, in some form or another, to stay.

Further Reading

 Wodehouse, Artis. Tracing Gershwins Piano Rolls. In The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin, edited by Wayne Schneider, 209–224. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Day, Timothy. A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Music History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Taylor, Timothy. The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of Mechanical Music.’ ” Ethnomusicology 51, No. 2 (Spring/Summer, 2007): 281–305.

2 Comments
  • David Prouty on April 5, 2021

    Hi Sarah- Have you explored disc recordings for more modern player pianos? As I recall, they can include pedalling, expression, etc.
    Thank you for your work-

  • Nancy Hayes Clune on April 6, 2021

    Dear Artis, Sarah, and company,

    This film and article knocked my socks off! As a huge fan of both the Gershwins and the player piano, I’ve never seen such a detailed explanation of the player piano. My father, who was born in 1924, introduced me to the Great American Songbook, and my husband and I had a pianist play “Love Is Here to Stay” at our wedding in 1983. Many thanks for sharing this labor of love.

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