A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Player Piano Player

30 April 2022 8:53 PM (transnaturalism | musing)

Once upon a time, there were player pianos. Initially intended to play popular songs of the day without need for a trained pianist, they were capable of playing music no human pianist could actually play.

Humans don't have enough fingers. They can't move fast enough. They can't span great enough distances. The player piano mechanism can. American-Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow decided to take advantage of this fact and write piano music that was never intended to be playable by humans.

Occasionally, someone will ask what the difference between a person with a tool and an augmented person is. I think the player piano gives a pretty good way of answering that.

Consider Nancarrow. His experience is outside of time. He has as long as he wants to decide on the next notes and the next chord. He can make a small roll for a phrase and run it through the piano, hear how it sounds, and if he doesn't care for it try something else. He can compose the song in any order he likes, like writing the beginning and end and working from both ends toward the middle. His experience is also less immediate, by its nature. He has to compose the piece, cut the roll, and feed it through the piano before he or anyone else can hear it.

The pianist, on the other hand, is a prisoner of time. Whatever note they play is the note that was played. If they take more time to think than they have, they're stuck with silence. If they're improvising from scratch they have to make everything up right then and there. But the instrument is practically an extension of their imagination, from the thought of sound to a finger-twitch to vibrating strings.

Of course the piano is a tool itself, with the player piano a tool for using the tool. But we can ask ourselves what it would be like to be a human augmented to play like a player piano. The salient characteristic would be that nothing is unplayable, while still keeping all the same immediacy, with the instrument an extension of imagination and body.

You might say that limitations can be a tool of creativity and…you are correct! But nothing says the limitations can't be self-chosen. That evolution happened to give us ten fingers connected in a specific way is an interesting fact, but doesn't make that configuration special.

Also, in a sense, an augmented pianist recovers limitations that wouldn't otherwise exist in that style of music. Whether it's a piano composition unplayable by a single human or an entire orchestra, certain arrangements can't, at present, be the subject of one person's on-the-fly instrumentation.

However, an augmented human really could improvise a piece for a symphony orchestra and have all the constraints of time that someone noodling on a saxophone would. It brings back immediate temporal stakes to forms that otherwise have the potential for compositional do-overs.

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