Yes, admitedly, “robot pianos” is a slightly hyperbolic description. Tomorrow night, Monday May 23, some friends of mine in the Ethnomusicology Archive at UCLA are hosting “Ethnickelodeon,” a really neat concert of vintage pianola music. The pianola is a player piano, the old-timey kind that play music off of paper rolls. Apparently, operating the controls of the pianola is a bit of an art-form: so Monday night’s event won’t just consist of a ghostly piano playing by itself on an empty stage, but will feature Bob Berkman, a master of the pianola genre and an expert on automated instruments,
operating the controls. Berkman recently donated a huge collection of folksongs on piano rolls to the Ethnomusicology Archive, and is coming down from Buffalo, NY to play some of those rolls. You can see him in action, playing a Lithuanian tune, here . Apparently there was a huge market for culturally-specific folk tune piano rolls during the early 20th century, as immigrants from abroad were moving to the US, so you can expect to hear Finnish, Jewish, Russian, Hungarian, Croatian, Ukrainian, Italian, Syrian, Greek, West Indian, Mexican, Argentinean, and Cuban music, as well as jazz, bluegrass, and classical. The concert is 7pm in Popper Theatre in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA, and admission is free.
After hearing about the concert, I was wondering if, given LA’s longstanding history as a center of the entertainment world, there was ever much of a pianola industry here. The all-knowing Wikipedia tells me that the Los Angeles Art Organ Company attempted to manufacture a pianola-like device, but was sued for copyright infringement by the Aeolian Company of New York. (The image of their factory, at left, is from the LA Public Library Photo Collection – I can’t track down an address for the building, unfortunately!) The Southern California Music Company, which is now based out of Glendale, and is one of the oldest operating stores in California (they opened in 1880), sold piano rolls and other related equipment – the ad above, from a 1911 edition of the California Outlook is for a pianola attachment that turns regular grand pianos into player pianos.