An open acoustic piano connected to tubes and wires.
Marla Hlady (Toronto, ON), Playing Piano, 2007, prepared reproducing player piano, dimensions variable, Robert Langen Art Gallery, Wilfrid Laurier University. Photo: Gordon Hatt.

Being in a room with a piano is an immersive experience. When a piano is played, the large wooden body of the instrument resonates and everything in the room resonates with it. Sound is cast off in every direction, bouncing off the ceilings and the walls, enveloping and at times overwhelming you. Among musical instruments the piano has an unmatched dynamic range – sound grows in volume and diminishes, fills the surrounding space only to recede from it. In the hands of an experienced pianist the piano is a tool of domination and submission, of seduction and conquest.

To experience a player piano is to add a further level of complexity. Piano keys move and notes sound as if struck by invisible fingers. But the music issuing from the instrument isn’t light and ethereal, as one might imagine coming from some ghostly spirit playing a piano. Rather, the music is robust, dynamic and rhythmic – everything we associate with performed piano. Unlike the experience of listening to a conventional recording, one keenly perceives the trace of an absent musician.

A 19th century mechanical engineering project, the player piano was perfected in the early 20th century. The basic principle involves music which is “recorded” by making a series of perforations corresponding to musical notes on a roll of paper. The paper is scrolled mechanically across a pneumatic “tracker bar” and as the paper perforations run over the tracker bar air is allowed to pass through, triggering the operation of switching valves. These switches open larger valves which effect the piano action – the hammer striking the string. The later development of the "reproducing" player piano saw an elaboration of the system of valve switches to enable the instrument to perform the tempo, phrasing, dynamics and the pedalling of a performance.

Paper perforations on the music roll have been likened to an early form of binary code and indeed, all contemporary versions of the player piano replace the paper roll with a digital MIDI interface. The basic pneumatic system of the player piano anticipated its later application in robotics and machinery and like a primitive programmable robot the player piano mimics basic human functions – the piano roll its programmed brain, its compressor the heart and lungs, its tubing and valves a system of veins and musculature.

Player pianos were a significant presence in the popular culture at the same time that artists in other fields were becoming inspired by the machine. Futurists, Dadaists, Suprematists and Constructivists as well as avant-garde filmmakers, dramatists, choreographers and architects proclaimed their love of the machine and aspired to make their new art with the angular, hard edge and mechanical qualities of turn of the century industrial culture. It is not hard to imagine that the rhythmic and contrapuntal qualities of Ragtime and Dixieland were a response to the accelerated tempo and mechanization of life at this time and the rote mechanical reproduction of the basic player piano may have been particularly popular for its ability to perform this up-tempo and impressionistically mechanical sounding dance music.

At the turn of the century the player piano competed as a new recording and entertainment technology alongside the Victrola and the moving picture, but it now exists as a curious historical footnote at the margins of our consciousness. While recorded music and cinema grew to become the basis of the 20th century entertainment industry, the emergence of commercial radio in the 30s was the beginning of the end for the player piano.

* * *

“Playing Piano” is an open ended investigation into the mechanics of sound. It is an open journal describing the way the artist listens, looks, thinks and explores the material world. Marla Hlady takes apart machines and exposes their inner workings to rebuild them as versions of their former selves, building and rebuilding machines that make and record sounds. Taking a thing apart is a critique – a way of honouring the thing, a way of admiring its construction and the many decisions of its designers and makers. It exposes the assumptions and aspirations upon which the thing is made and it reveals the author’s inventions and limitations. Rebuilding the thing is a form of love and respect. Adding to a thing – decorating it, manipulating it, customizing it – is to enter into a dialogue, to talk to the thing and to engage its maker’s spirit, to speculate on its history, to revel in its possibility and to indulge in creative anarchy. Among artists, Marla is a “hot-rodder.” She adores machines by taking them apart, honours them when she rebuilds them, and engages them in a dialogue by adapting them, reinventing them and “playing” with them. She builds and rebuilds machines in ways that describe the way sound would look like if you could see it, touch it, walk around it.

“Playing Piano” begins with the thing itself. An upright reproducing player piano is at once full of social, cultural and private histories (witness the little nicks and dents in the body, the missing pieces of moulding) and yet curiously also something of a blank slate. Slightly compact in appearance it could be overlooked in a home (especially if you don’t know how to play the piano), a large piece of furniture concealing its musical potential and its mechanical sophistication. But where to begin?

For Marla, “playing piano” means to explore the instrument's sculptural and aural potential. Making reference to a history of music that employed “prepared pianos,” she set the terms of her engagement by deciding to explore the range of sounds she could get out of the piano with various mechanical adaptations. Getting started meant pulling out the keyboard, eliminating the temptation to engage the piano conventionally, and maybe as a necessary gesture of transgression – to open the way to each succeeding transgression – as a way to just to get inside the thing. Once the keyboard was gone, it reverted from a musical instrument to a machine. She then stripped away the front panels to reveal the strings, valves and music roll mechanism above, the power source, valves and bellows below.

Marla then proceeded to “eviscerate” the piano, to gut it, by removing the electric motor and bellows compressor, the source that activates the valves and hammers. She pulled the motor and the compressor out of the piano and across the room, reconnecting it with lengths of rubber tubing. It is the air pressure in the system of tubing that determines the median tempo of the piano and by stretching, extending and reducing the air pressure in the system she began the process of slowing the tempo of the playback mechanism. Having exploded the air compression source, she turned her attention to the music roll assembly. She removed it too from the body of the piano and remounted it above, in the process extending the system of pneumatic tubing to reach the elevated the music roll and its air motor and adding further drag to the tempo. The once the familiar jazz melody on the found piano roll now plays so slowly as to be completely unrecognizable.

Pulling out the “guts” of the upright piano revealed its strings. In pianos hammers “strike” strings, but strings can be activated in other ways. She fabricated a strumming mechanism from a cannibalized photocopier then added two pie-plate press machines. She also added two whistle machines and microphones to the bellows and the air vents of the tracker bar. Each of these devices is initiated by vibration sensors attached to the piano's strings. When a string vibrates, it causes a sound event by one of the machines or activates one of the microphones. To make these sounding mechanisms audible she attached two surface resonating speakers to the piano soundboard, amplifying the discreet strumming and damping sounds though the native amplification system.

Marla’s removal of the keyboard and her extrusion of the piano’s heavy air compressor and music roll assemblies are physical aggressions; her affixing of a variety of light mechanical electronic devices to its sound board and strings are a series of gentle caresses. In her hands the player piano has begun to resemble a mechanical “one-man-band” with her electronic preparations creating a half dozen simultaneous sound events and actions. She has taken a magnifying glass to the instrument so that we can experience it – as a musical instrument but also as a fascinating piece of vintage mechanics. She has drawn and stretched the piano outside of its body to expose its internal system as a network of distances – a network of sources and pathways and destinations that circulate, escape and return within a closed but leaky system.

Gordon Hatt, 2007

This text first appeared in YYZINE, January 2008. 

Toronto-based artist Marla Hlady is best known for the kinetic sculptures and sound pieces that brought her a nomination for the 2002 Sobey Award. Hlady also makes innovative brushed ink line drawings, which render the emotional, physical and metaphorical properties of sound visible. Hlady's work was the subject of a one-person exhibition at the Power Plant, Toronto, in 2001. Her work has also been shown in several group shows in Canada as well as in London, New York and Imola, Italy. In 2008 her work was paired with the inventive kinetic works of Murray Favro in Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines at Museum London (ON). In 2009 Hlady participated in Resounding at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax and she has been commissioned by Artengine, Ottawa (ON) to make a new sound work. Recent solo exhibitions include Rodman Hall Art Centre, St. Catharines, ON; YYZ Artist Outlet, Toronto and the Oshawa Art Gallery, Oshawa.

Other works in CAFKA.09