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How the pianola became fiction

In the early 20th century, the mechanical piano, also known as the pianola, became very popular. As a consequence, classical music could be enjoyed at leisure in the home and not exclusively in the concert hall. In a new study published by the major academic publisher Ashgate, Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg from Halmstad University demonstrates how traces of this new approach to music may be found in British fiction of the period.

– We are so caught up in today’s technological development that we tend to forget that it’s actually in a state of constant change. That’s why I’ve gone a hundred years back in time to study music technology that was new then. What traces has it left in British fiction?

Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg is a senior lecturer of English at the School of Learning, Humanities and Social Sciences at Halmstad University.

Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg has compiled a large archival material from the mid-19th century to World War I combining such diverse fields as music criticism, advertising, conjuring and engineering in order to establish as complex a picture as possible of this innovative music technology.  The so-called “self-playing” piano, Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg points out, was far from self-playing.

– It’s important to distinguish between the different types of player pianos: the exclusive “reproducing piano” which had no keyboard and functioned a little like today’s cd or mp3 players, and the more common and less sophisticated so-called “pianola”.  The pianola came in two models. The player mechanism was either fitted inside a traditional piano or existed as a separate device that was rolled up to the piano, explains Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg.

A segment of a Chopin piece is heard in the video clip. The music of Chopin and Beethoven was particularly popular for punching into piano rolls in the early 20th century, as it was considered close to unplayable on a conventional piano. The ability to play Chopin on a pianola was perceived as a conjuring trick. (Source: Award Audio)

Consumption of Culture Characterised by Gender Equality

The focus of the study is the semi-automatic pianola because it enabled repeated listening and playing without requiring the performer to read music. This innovation in piano-playing opened up previously unknown perspectives for those who were musically illiterate. The relatively inexpensive pianola was therefore a democratic instrument that popularised a cultural capital that had previously been largely reserved for an educated elite. It also blurred the boundary between art and entertainment.

– The musical score of classical pieces was punched into the paper of the piano rolls which could be seen as the “software”. Since these rolls often lacked information about musical tempo and phrasing, they enabled new interpretations of canonical music such as Beethoven’s “gendered” sonatas. Therefore, the pianola became a gender-political instrument. Paradoxically, this process coincided with the futurists’ attempts to control sound, says Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg.

Traces in Fiction

The pianola was immensely popular from 1900 to 1925 and had a great impact on the musical climate of that brief period. Then it fell into oblivion, but Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg argues that this invention created a new approach to piano-playing that existed in parallel to traditional piano technique. Being a literary scholar, Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg has studied how this innovative behaviour is reflected in British fiction written in the period between 1900 and 1915.

– Readers in the early 20th century were aware that the traditional and mechanical piano discourses were running parallel but since we have lost touch with that knowledge, I wish to retrieve it, says säger Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg.

Text and photo: LOUISE WANDEL

In her study The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel, recently published by Ashgate, Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg traces the mechanical piano discourse in Edwardian British fiction.

Mechanical pianos, such as the pianola, were marketed as technological inventions in the interface between art, entertainment and industrialisation. They were considered economical of both time and energy as they did not induce fatigue in the performer, in contrast to the conventional piano. Consequently, the total volume of listening and playing increased in society, a phenomenon that was reflected in contemporary fiction. Photo: CECILIA BJÖRKÉN-NYBERG

About the book

The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel by Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg is published by Ashgateexternal link. Parts of the book are made available by Google books.external link

Updated 2018-02-23