Technological Object: Player Piano

At the start of his short, autobiographical History of the Player (1913), American inventor John McTammany gives the reader a melodramatic warning:

it was in the midst of hellish surroundings, while convalescing upon a cot in a military hospital in the South that my mind was opened to the possibility and desirability, of an instrument operatable by means of a perforated device. It follows, therefore, that the history of the war and the history of the player are one and inseparable.

McTammany’s insistence that “the history of the war and the history of the player are one” rests on an unsettling insistence upon the symmetry between a “perforated device” and his own wounded body; the groundbreaking machine is hailed as an American response to a “history written in the crimson gore of her slaughtered sons”. This deliberate association between inscription and violence runs throughout McTammany’s book, a short and hectoring work that was mailed gratis to a number of influential New Yorkers in the second half of 1913.

Less than a year after McTammany spammed Manhattan, attempting to secure his copyright claim on the disputed technology, the June 13th 1914 issue of New York’s satirical Puck magazine featured a cartoon making the same macabre connection:

This striking image was wryly annotated “It is safe to predict that the composer of the future will use a shotgun“; only fifteen days after it appeared, the young Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading Austria-Hungary to declare war on the 28th July, 1914.

Given this unsettling instance of cataclysmic synchronicity, it is surprising to note that the literary references to the player-piano in the wake of the 1914-18 conflict largely ignored the associations raised by McTammany and Puck magazine. Of the canonical modernist texts to engage with the device, many are aloof and dismissive, the most familiar being Ezra Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ (1920), in which the poet complains that “The pianola ‘replaces’ | Sappho’s barbitos.” Among the few modernist admirers of the device was Marcel Proust, who included a rhapsodic portrait of Albertine “before the pianola” in the fifth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu:

Her shapely legs, which on the first day I had with good reason imagined as having manipulated throughout her girlhood the pedals of a bicycle, now rose and fell alternately upon those of the pianola, upon which Albertine […] pressed her shoes of cloth of gold. Her fingers, at one time accustomed to handlebars, now rested upon the keys like those of a St. Cecilia.

Proust’s epiphanic paragraph wanders on for a further three pages, concluding with the famous aphorism “Love is space and time made perceptible to the heart”, yet even this bizarre (and almost unique) defence of the pianola as a “lighted sanctuary” bears more than a hint of bathos; the transformation of Albertine’s cyclist’s legs and handlebar fingers into those of St. Cecilia (the patroness of musicians) takes place exclusively in the besotted eyes (and ears) of Marcel himself.

James Joyce, or “Shem the Sham”, was a more enthusiastic connoisseur of the counterfeit than most, and his “usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles” adds generously to the literature of the mechanical piano, offering the unforgettable image of the “bald little round jack-in-the-box head of Father Dolan” springing out of a “pianola coffin”, a sight rendered truly nightmarish as Zoe “drops two pennies in the slot” and “Gold pink and violet lights start forth”… The blurring of human and artificial is increased as Zoe starts to sing along with the mechanical piano, whose song is annotated not as a musical score (nor as perforated paper) but as mechanically-generated language:


My girl’s a Yorkshire girl.


Yorkshire through and through. Come on all!

(She seizes Florry and waltzes her)

This fantastic display works a kind of grisly magic, as “Stephen’s mother, emaciated” soon “rises stark through the floor in leper grey,” prompting Dedalus to cry out in terror “The ghoul! Hyena!”. The result of Joyce’s pianola ritual is thus a gruesome foreshadowing of Friedrich Kittler’s 1986 observation that “technological media guarantee the similarity of the dead to stored data”.

By the time Joyce and Proust’s novels appeared, the player-piano was nearing its swansong: the historian Arthur Ord-Hume claims that the “peak of its popularity lay between 1910 and 1925”, and that it “died in about 1932”. It was in this postmortem period, surprisingly enough, that the philosophical and cultural implications of the punched paper roll device began to come under more serious scrutiny, emerging in the Philosophical Investigations (1953) of Ludwig Wittgenstein (as a ‘Lesemachine’), and in titanic novels from William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and William T. Vollmann. Increasingly, in this later era, the device came to be viewed as representing something uniquely American, a prescient symbol of the IBM punch-card, and a foreshadowing of a widespread “counterfeit culture”. Theodor Adorno, writing from the ‘German California’ of post-war Pacific Palisades, LA, made this association in his Philosophy of New Music (1949), launching an attack on

the paltriness of [America’s] parodied music, [with] characteristic preferences for the bravado of the Music Hall rather than Parsifal, for the mechanical player piano rather than the intoxication of the string quartet, for a romantic dream-America rather than the bogeyman of German Romanticism…

These remarks offer a useful cluster of Adorno’s attitudes towards his post-war “dream-America”, dismissed as a phantasm of “parodied music”, “Music Halls”, and “mechanical player pianos”. Elsewhere in the same volume, Adorno comments in more detail upon music composed exclusively for the player-piano, observing that in such compositions “Anxiety in the face of dehumanization is transformed into the joy of its unveiling, and ultimately into the pleasure of the same death instinct whose symbolism was prepared by the hated Tristan.” The association returns us, of course, to McTammany’s own 1913 pamphlet, in which it is maintained that “the history of the war and the history of the player are one and inseparable”. By 1949, however, “the war” was, of course, a global event, and “the player” was being transformed into a worldwide punched-card data culture; the inventor’s vision of “crimson gore” and “slaughtered sons” had been multiplied by previously unimaginable degrees, and the problem of recording “history” via perforated paper was only beginning.


—Rob Turner

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7 Responses to Technological Object: Player Piano

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  5. Rob Turner says:

    Thanks, David (I just spotted your comment!)

    In trying to establish a ‘who mentioned it first’ for the mechanical piano, I came across Conrad’s reference (which seems, for those keeping score, to have been preceded only by H.G. Wells’s ‘Kipps’ in anglophone fiction)… The link with perforation does take on its most morbid countenance there, doesn’t it? Especially with the description of the resulting music as “painfully detatched”. Strangely enough, when the machine reappears at the end of the novel (Chapter 13), it seems to be deployed for peculiarly comic anthropomorphic effect: “The mechanical piano near the door played through a valse cheekily, then fell silent all at once, as if gone grumpy.” An unexpected shift from the macarbre to the light-hearted! Although, re-reading the Chapter 4 passage, I notice that it is described as a “lonely piano, without as much as a music stool to help it”. Perhaps the novel includes a hidden monoodrama for mechanical piano, in which the lonely device gradually loses its cheeky candour and sinks into an increasing gloom…

  6. David Trotter says:

    Excellent post, Rob! Chapter 4 of Conrad’s Secret Agent provides further reason to think that mechanical pianos perforate. Ossipon meets the Professor in a cafe and tells him about the Greenwich bomb-blast. It’s our introduction not just to the Professor but to his suicide-bomb – and the custom-built detonator which will give him 20 excruciating seconds in which to contemplate his own imminent shredding. The piano sets the scene. ‘An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity. The din it raised was deafening. When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.’ And then, at the end of the chapter, as the Professor leaves. ‘The lonely piano, without as much as a music stool to help it, struck a few chords courageously, and beginning a selection of national airs, played him out at last to the tune of “Blue Bells of Scotland.” The painfully detached notes grew faint behind his back while he went slowly upstairs, across the hall, and into the street.’

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