The player piano has come, oddly, full circle.

Peer into the editing pane of a music sequencer, and what you see is an abstracted virtual player piano. The editing views are even dubbed “Piano Roll” views (sometimes officially so). The MIDI protocol by which most music devices and apps communicate is itself a kind of port of the piano roll’s paradigm to a digital implementation, with fixed pitch and durations spanning time in an endless loop.

So it’s fitting that Dan Deacon is busy in the studio, feeding a player piano with MIDI and computers in order to make it play layers of unplayable music. The technical work is significant, to be sure, but on another level it’s natural that the computer would speak to the player piano in such terms. These are distant technologies bridged by a common understanding of how to simplify and reproduce music. The process speaks to some of the limitations in the way in which computers typically relate to musical instruments. We may be at the end of the road for this century-old way of thinking about mechanized music. But, extended to the near-breaking point, the maximalist texture that results is all the more beautiful.

Thanks to Jason Bergman for the tip.

Pitchfork TV: Dan Deacon in the Studio [Player Piano]

  • nooooo
    i've wanted to do this for YEARS

  • This is the only article i havent like in createdigitalmusic.

    Please no more articles about this guy.

  • Okay, after several attempts at writing this without sounding like a curmudgeon:
    If the player piano interests you, check out Colon Nancarrow. Maybe we can be all 2001 and some folks can learn about prepared piano via drukQs.

  • Wow, that still sounds grumpier than I would have hoped, as I am not full of grumpy feelings. *sigh* Nancarrow Rocks.

  • Richard


  • nick

    I remember seeing Trimpin realize Nancarrow's music in the early 1990s via piano roll to MIDI to piano interface to Steinway. He also put custom made little gloves/condoms with harder surfaces on the piano hammers to approximate Nancarrow's own sanded hammers. Nancarrow himself was in attendance.

    At the time I ind of remember there was some, probably European playback system for sale with mechanical little fingers for each key that would perform MIDI. I had heard Tangerine Dream were messing around with it

    I think there's been a long history on reproducing pianos and creating custom systems to record performances better and then on the other side of things reproduce the performance with more nuance on higher quality pianos.

    On the other hand, with Nancarrow as a composer who turned to mechanical means to realize his difficult works, I'd say in his case "full circle" did not come with digital technology realizing his works. Full circle I'd say came when an interest in virtuoso modern music found performers capable of performing some of his music live with pianists, as also happened late in his life.

  • Lee

    Nice, Dan Deacon's sound is really coming along. I found his "Spiderman of the Rings" album to be really aesthetically interesting but just a bit too raw for my tastes. Sounds like his new album is much smoother but still retaining his unique wall-of-sound aesthetic. Might have to pick this up.

    The midi-controlled player piano is definitely sweet. I find it disheartening to see comments dismissing it as "already been done", as if the fact that someone, somewhere, already did something similar completely discredits his work. I can only imagine people scoffing at DJ Cash Money, DJ Flare, and Qbert under the same pretenses. Didn't they know that Grand Wizzard Theodore has ALREADY DONE vinyl record manipulation?

  • NO way

    This guy is kind of a douche. One gimmick after another…

  • Wow… okay, so Dan Deacon proves to be more divisive than I would have imagined. I was sort of distracted by the player piano itself — particularly after spending some time yesterday with David Wessel at CNMAT, who was talking about sending hundreds of channels of audio as control signal.

    Actually, the other thing I wondered is, the supposedly-unplayable gesture at the beginning of the video is to me something that could be played by humans in some form. (Now, not with all the layers going at the end, of course.)

    And, indeed, if Dan Deacon can't use player piano because Nancarrow did, does that mean no one can do prepared piano because Cage did? Jeez, folks, it is possible to get carried away with novelty. (That does give me an April Fool's idea, though…)

  • I guess people were responding to the "full circle" comment. I didn't mean because of Dan Deacon per se; there are lots of examples over the past couple of decades, lots of work composers have done with the Yamaha Disklavier, etc. The whole point is, MIDI itself is an odd reflection of player pianos in concept. It's fitting that it winds up controlling player pianos. That ought to raise some questions about what you can do if you go beyond MIDI.

  • This reminds me of college, when I saw a guy break a Disklavier with a Max patch.

  • I really do not mean to slight Deacon in any way. I just thought that in watching the video (and a few others from pitchfork), and the comments on the how portions of the work are "unplayable" it seems that Nancarrow is an important touchstone.

    I was not trying to make a "this has been done before" kind of dismissal. Just trying to point out that if this kind of thing interests you, Nancarrow probably would too.

    Like prepared piano, I find this to be a really wonderful tool for composition / performance, and it always surprises me that it isn't used more often in innovative ways (and I am thinking of Deacon's use as innovative), so seeing this work really does excite me.

    I just think that it is also important to point back to influences and inspirations. Deacon does in his <a href="; rel="nofollow">bio.

  • Why all the Dan Deacon hate?
    Seriously, someone explain to me why this guy is such a douche? Seems like he's creating some interesting digital music.

    Is it because of that cheesy 80's video from a while back? Seems kinda lame to hold that against him.

    Now, I'm not sure how innovative the player piano stuff really is. This is the same as using an arpeggiator on a piano sampler, 'cept the hooked it up to a real piano for recording. As far as recording techniques, that's pretty cool but it's not like, really a new sound or anything.

  • lanatation

    i'm a bit disappointed because i watched the film hoping to maybe see a diskclavier in action or at least hear a bit of this unplayable music. the part where he made food analogies for music was funny though.

  • two clips of yamaha disklavier in action:

  • Honkey McGee

    The clip embedded in the article isn't as interesting as the others found on the snowghost site. That house is AMAZING!!!

  • It could be argued that if the music a person is making causes no disunity they aren't doing it right. If anything, I like it better knowing that some people hate it. I could be talking out of my ass though. Either way, player piano, geese, whatnot.

  • Thanks, guys — this is turning into a little player piano roundup. Followup story is definitely needed.

    And yes, absolutely worth looking at previous examples / sources / influences / precedents / etc.!

  • Cliff Baldwin

    This is pretty disappointing.
    You've really got to do something really very unusual when using player piano. When Charles Amirkhanian first found Nancarrow in Mexico City and produced those early recordings it was like discovering the light bulb.
    The rolls were all hand punched. It's too easy now with computers.
    This guy is full of it. The fancy studio makes it all the more pretentious.
    Doing documentaries about this activity is pretty unnecessary.
    I expect better from CDM.

  • a clip of a conlon nancarrow piece remixed:
    (organic, yet 100% programmed…)

  • I for one really liked this piece. Dan is coming to town, so now I will definitely have to se him, after watching this segment.

    He has his masters in electro-acoustic and computer music, which is pretty legit, IMHO.

    And Im def goign to have to check out this Nancarrow fellow. Thanks for mentioning him 'citenoncite'

  • @Cliff: Jeez, okay, to review:

    "We report, you decide." 😉

    I think this prompted a really interesting discussion. The point isn't that everything posted on a site is some sort of awesome benchmark of what everyone should do. As musicians, we experiment and try stuff. In this case, someone just liked this and passed it along, so I shared it (in the midst of a busy week covering the Game Developer Conference). To be honest, I'm just a little puzzled why the assumption is that doing a 200-word (or less) story on something is necessarily championing the subject matter. That has come up in comments before; I'm just not sure how to cure folks of that idea. I think things may well be up for criticism — but then, that's all the more reason to post them, to prompt some thoughtful criticism. (I think yours is, but then why complain that we posted it in the first place? Maybe it's worth criticizing?)

  • Rick Thompson

    Can anybody tell me which song is playing during the end credits (before he starts "rapping")?

  • Cliff Baldwin

    Peter –
    OK so you shared this tip you got.
    This is an interesting discussion – you're right.
    In the end I'm not sure it is worth criticizing.

    Your editorial powers are pretty sharp. You deserve much credit for what you do. This guy Deacon – masters or no masters – does not.
    I'm big into Nancarrow, Ligeti barrel organs, etc. – can't help it.

    Your post: A New US Administration Could Mean Change for Technology, Arts was fantastic! Thank you for that!

  • Well, this week will be better – I'm not at a conference!

  • CV!

    I thought this was only slightly interesting, but I can't understand why you'd criticize CDM for posting it, just move along please!

    Funny how people who said "this has been done before" come out sounding pretentious (and a little jealous of the coverage maybe?)

  • First, let me say I love Dan Deacon, think he's a genuinely creative and inspiring guy, and he gives a VERY excellent live performance. Also the player piano thing is great (though it may have 'been done before' in some form or another), and this new album is sounding very nice and more mature than his last.

    That said (and I risk sounding like my grandfather here)… did he get run over by a lawnmower? Get in a fight with a hedge-trimmer? 😉

    Anyway – thanks for posting this, Peter. I enjoyed the videos.

  • josh

    i think dan deacon is on tour now?
    he's coming to seattle on april 28th to the vera project

    "gimmick"? i'm waiting till i see it for myself.

  • Andreasfr

    I too thought the video only slightly interesting, though interesting enoungh that I watched it and bought 'Bromst' out of curiosity and I'm absolutly blow away! Perhaps it's not for everyone, but it certainly is for me! In that way big thanks for posting this, Peter!

  • Johan

    "Bromst" is in my opinion the best album of this year so far.

  • vincent c

    thanks for sharing this.. by the way, his new album is great!

  • Machines

    I found the video to be quite interesting. I always find it inspiring to see how other people are doing things, whether they can lay claim to being the FIRST to have done it or not. It's amazing to me how on the internet everyone expresses their opinion as though it is factual.

    Heck, I don't find every article on making your own instrument all that entertaining all the time, but you don't find me stopping by in every comment thread telling Peter he's doing a shit job.

    Peter, keep doing what you're doing. I'd love to see more stuff like this make its way over here.

  • TheCragon

    very interesting video imo! never heard of him. will definitely buy the new album!

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  • helas

    thanks for sharing this. i was happy to see Bromst become a more mature and meaningful record. Spiderman of the Rings was, like he said, kind of a party starter, fun and easy, which is something that tends to rub me the wrong way sometimes. i had no idea about the player piano. i respect him that much more for bridging gaps like this and reversing digital to analog in a beautiful fashion.