Conlon Nancarrow Turns in His Grave: Last Player Piano Roll Manufacturer Ceases Production

As far as dead technologies are concerned, the player piano is pretty low on the list of tragedies. Long ago virtually killed by the arrival of recorded music, the instrument, which plays itself with the help of a roll of paper with punched-out holes on it, had its heyday in the early 20th Century, but remained viable enough to be profitable for QRS Technologies, a producer of new paper rolls, to continue production. The Buffalo-based company, however, stopped making them last Thursday.

Which would be a little less sad were it not for the work of the late composer Conlon Nancorrow, who composed what is arguably some of the first computer music -- on player piano. Beginning in the 1940s, Nancarrow crafted compositions on blank player piano rolls by punching the holes himself, each one representing a note on the keyboard. He experimented with geometric patterns on the rolls, created pieces for player piano that no human could possibly replicate because fingers don't move that fast and can't be a dozen places on the board simultaneously. It was a genius idea (listen above).

He died in 1997, thankfully before the last piano roll manufacturer stopped making the rolls. Since then, his work has become a little more known. (But any excuse to highlight his work is good enough for me.) Listen to the above clip, and if it's a little grating, that's understandable. But listen until the end; the piece goes absolutely insane in the last minute. It's one more lesson for musicians: musical technologies never die; they just get brushed aside. Ask 8-Bit composers. (via The Daily Swarm)

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