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Re: [ARSCLIST] Memorex CDs and more!
On Wed, 18 Jan 2006, Tom Fine wrote:
> This is fascinating. Do you play the rolls back on a vintage player piano or use a modern
> digital-translation system?
We do our transfers on vintage instruments, one is fitted with a factory
installed Ampico player, the other is a Feurich with a factory installed
Welte machine. The man who does the transfers has been working with the
reproducing rolls for over 40 years. He has a superb collection and contacts
with most of the major collections, plus things like timing information
taken from many of the master rolls.
> Also, who else did piano rolls? Didn't someone release an album of Gershwin playing his own pieces
> from a set of rolls or was that someone else? I remember there being a lot of mainstream media about
> something involving "lost" rolls found and recorded for CD a few years ago.
The list of performers who did rolls is very long. A fairly complete
listing can be found in
The Classical reproducing piano roll : a catalogue-index / compiled by
Larry Sitsky, New York : Greenwood Press, 1990.
Most of the work is being financed by individuals. Years ago, some
attempts were made to get support from the NEH and other places, but in
those days, I guess very few took the reproducing rolls seriously, no
doubt due to the poor transfers that had been done. And speaking of
libraries, our University has no interest in his collection, but then they
have no interest in discographic knowledge or the technical aspects of
audio preservation either.
We have the pianos worked on by a terrific technician. He keeps the keys
in excellent alignment and then Mr. Caswell, the man who does the transfers,
works with the factory test rolls to insure that the dynamic levels are
properly regulated. He also has technicians manuals for the various series of
rolls. They would make some adjustments over the years and rolls from a
particular vintage might require specific settings.
We also, whenever possible, try to compare several rolls of the same
piece. Mr. Caswell will visually compare different printings of the rolls
and choose the one that is in the best shape, and then will often have to
do some repair work.
I don't mean for this to sound like a commercial for what we issue, but, I
believe that the reproducing piano rolls have gotten bad press because the
transfers were bad. Over the years Mr. Caswell maintained a contact with
Harold Schonberg, who was probably one of the most informed writers when it
came to pianists. Towards the end of his life, Harold became one of
For me, the results, when done well are (ok, I can see the bombs coming)
a more honest representation of the playing of the years prior to electric
recording than any disc. If interested I can share my reasoning. I am not
saying that the rolls do not have limitations, but then, while an acoustic
disc might be an accurate representation of playing, the musician made
many adjustments to "make it sound right," and, there were more than a few
negatives like the limited dynamic and frequency range.
As probably many know, not all rolls were created equal. The dynamics for
the early ampico rolls were notated by well trained musicians who would
make marks in the score as the musicians played. The Ampico B rolls
recorded the dynamics as played. Ampico was known to "edit" a fair amount,
yet Welte would let the artist either accept or reject a roll, but
preferred not to edit, and from the very start c. 1905, Welte recorded
dynamics as played.
The limitations of the early Ampico resulted in "perfect crescendos," as
the assistant would simply notate on the score a beginning and end point
in a crescendo. As you know, a pianist can work their entire life to make
this happen, but it never does...which perhaps stimulated Rachmaninoff to
make that often quote remark, "it makes me sound like I wish I did."
At his own expense, a researcher by the name of John McClellan, has been
compiling a list of all of the known extant copies of the Welte rolls,
mostly in private hands, plus the collection at USC. The major German
archives have been reluctant to share their information. The best estimates
he has to offer is that approximately 2/3rds of those rolls made, still exist.
Mr. Caswell will be 75 soon and I wish we had some resources to document
his technical knowledge and to enable him to make more transfers.
Other projects in the works include a 3 disc set of composers playing
their own music. Mr. Caswell's transfers of the Mahler rolls have the
imprimatur of de La Grange, the Mahler biographer, and will be included in
The most recent issue of Musical Opinion features a review, written by Max
Harrison, which covers Mr. Caswell's work.