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  • The Transfigured Instrument:Player Piano
  • Laura Emelianoff (bio)

Although it was certainly not the first automated instrument, the player piano was one of the first to become commercially available and created a significant disruption in the history and philosophy of musical interaction. This was an invention that made virtuosic performance available in some way to any household that could afford it, but at the expense of the flexibility and expressiveness that a live player could provide. The steel sculpture Player Piano symbolized a desire to sustain immediate contact with musical objects in the context of those emerging technologies that alienated the corporeal performer. It was influenced by hand-cranked barrel organs and elements of piano design: the fully symmetrical, balanced sitting posture, the frontal presentation of the paper roll, and the integration of organic linear patterns into an otherwise squarish, heavy shape. Handwritten text on a vintage piano roll of Franz Liszt's Liebestraum discusses the physical demands of performance and the possibility of injury, as well as Heinrich Heine's account of one of Liszt's recitals. Liszt was known for having defined the modern concept of the virtuoso, through his physically and technically demanding music.

My work in the plastic arts strives for an interpretation not resting solely on verbal dialogue but also on kinesthetic and emotional responses in the viewer. Player Piano (Fig. 20) is a transfiguration of the piano and the activities associated with it: reading and simultaneous hand movement. Resembling a writing desk, it invites visitors in an exhibition setting to sit and read the text, using a slow and patient rotation of the hand crank. What follows is an excerpt from the writing:

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Fig. 20.

Laura Emelianoff, Player Piano, mild steel, paper roll, chemical patina, 2004.

Photo © Laura Emelianoff

The piano addresses the sense of immediate touch. Here I feel the physicality of silence, the layer of space beneath the hand that cannot be controlled or penetrated until the rest ends. This breathing space splits the unity of the two hands; they become equally entitled. . . . They create an argument for primacy.

This text is an interpretation of J.S. Bach's keyboard works. Each voice is treated equally, and every note is given a separate impulse. This is essential to counterpoint, reflected in the composition and in the use of the hands.

The Romantic melancholy evoked by the sculpture, the industrial building material and the exaggerated prose reflect an extended period of time when the trajectory of technological advance and the effects of urbanization came into conflict with sociological concerns. Now, more than ever, there exists the question of whether the organic person will continue to function during such rapid development. This pattern of transformation, however, is dialogic: the instrument modifies the performer's bearing, general body use, reflexes and mannerisms. Most Western instruments were no longer objects of substantial experimentation by the 19th century. Piano makers, however, made a significant structural advance with the introduction of the internal cast-iron frame in the 1820s. The instrument itself was then more capable, with an expanded keyboard, creating a higher demand on the performer.

Many recognize that expert performance relies largely on kinesthetic sensations, or muscle memory, and less on aurally perceived information. Yet what is lacking, not only in the general public, but in specialized musical practice as well, is a developed and analytical understanding of proprioception (internal feelings of muscular contraction or expansion, balance and weight distribution). The reciprocal, upward pressure from the piano key as the action returns to its resting position points to the mechanical behavior of the instrument as well as the opposite force supplied by the player.

Physically active interfaces create a [End Page 48] perceptual unity, a reciprocal transmission of movement and vibration in the auditory or extra-auditory range. Through this unity, a "vital touch" can be achieved. It is correct to approach music study by addressing the player's physical apparatus, just as it is important to understand the behavior of the oral and nasal cavities while learning a new language. The body is a medium of music. In fact, almost all instruments are built to a human measure...


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