The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Player Piano Players: Conlon Nancarrow, Black Sabbath, Olin College of Engineering, Tom Johnson, Batman, Annie Gosfield, György Ligeti, Trimpin, Mario Bros., Marc-André Hamelin, Dan Deacon, Xiao Xiao, Minecraft, Memory Tapes, Igor Stravinsky


‘How do musicians communicate emotion? Performers have often answered this question in terms of what the performer should think and feel. According to the eighteenth-century keyboardist C. P. E. Bach, “a musician cannot move others unless he too is moved.” For nineteenth-century pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel, emotion came from the performer’s “ability to grasp what the composer himself has felt, expressing it in his playing, and making it pass into the souls of the listener. This can be neither notated nor indicated.”

‘Musical performance emerged as an object of scientific study around 1900, when for the first time physiologists and psychologists were able to record the fleeting processes of performance. Of course, you might think, that’s when the phonograph was becoming available. But it wasn’t the phonograph the early scientists of musical performance turned to. These scientists wanted to analyze not sound, but touch – the magical touch of the expert pianist.

‘To analyze pianists’ touch, Parisian psychologists Alfred Binet and Jules Courtier developed an apparatus that registered the time and pressure at which the pianists pressed the keys, recording this information in the fashion of a seismograph. Binet and Courtier used their graphs to show that the best pianists had the greatest regularity in execution. Around the same time (the 1890s), pianist-turned-research Marie Jaëll developed another method for register touch: covering the keyboard with strips of paper and coating the fingers with printing ink, she recorded the placement and quality of the fingers’ touch upon the keys.

‘Then, in the 1900s, the player piano hit the market. The player piano changed everything by introducing piano performance without keyboard touch. At first, piano rolls contained only metrically exact renditions of the notes of a musical score. Such performances were considered mechanical and soulless. Soon, timing, dynamics and pedaling too were automated with the piano rolls of a new type of instrument: the reproducing piano. Unlike the player piano, which played piano rolls generated straight from the score and had no mechanism for automated dynamics, the reproducing piano played piano rolls made from actual performances, complete with the performer’s temporal and dynamic nuances. The result was a new scientific instrument for the study of musical performance.’ — Spooky & the Metronome



Conlon Nancarrow

‘Composer Conlon Nancarrow was a dedicated socialist, which made him politically unacceptable in the United States. This was brought plainly home when he applied for a passport and was denied. Angry at such treatment, he moved to Mexico City in the early 1940s, becoming a Mexican citizen in 1956. He died there in 1997. Nancarrow composed for the player piano partly because of Mexico’s extreme musical isolation. Another more compelling reason was his long-standing frustration at the inability of musicians to deal with even moderately difficult rhythms. He goes so far as to say that “As long as I’ve been writing music I’ve been dreaming of getting rid of the performers.” With the advent of the phonograph, the player piano has been relegated to the status of an object of nostalgia. But not so for Nancarrow, who since the late 1940s composed almost exclusively for the instrument.’ — Other Minds

‘Study for Player Piano No. 21’


Black Sabbath
(on Synthesia)
‘Black Sabbath are cited as pioneers of heavy metal. The band helped define the genre with releases such as quadruple-platinum Paranoid, released in 1970. They were ranked by MTV as the “Greatest Metal Band” of all time, and placed second in VH1’s “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock” list, behind Led Zeppelin. Rolling Stone called the band “the heavy-metal kings of the ’70s”. They have sold over 15 million records in the United States and over 70 million records worldwide. Black Sabbath were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, and were included among Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.’ — Wiki

‘Iron Man’


Bill, Brian and Stefan of Olin College of Engineering

‘Much of Olin College’s curriculum is built around hands-on engineering and design projects. This project-based teaching begins in a student’s first year and culminates in two senior “capstone” projects. In the engineering capstone, Senior Consulting Program for Engineering (SCOPE) student teams are hired by corporations, non-profit organizations, or entrepreneurial ventures for real-world engineering projects. In the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (“AHS”) or Entrepreneurship (“E!”) capstone, students work on a self-designed project relating to their focus. Olin College allows students to receive funding and non-degree college credit for “Passionate Pursuits,” student-defined personal projects that the college recognizes as having academic value. Until 2009, the college offered full tuition to all students.’ — Students Review



Tom Johnson

‘Tom Johnson is an American minimalist composer, a former student of Morton Feldman. His pieces are most often based simply on mathematical and logical processes, such as tiling, which he attempts to make as clear as possible. His works include: The Four Note Opera, An Hour for Piano, Rational Melodies, the Bonhoeffer Oratorio,Organ and Silence, Riemannoper, and Galileo. Johnson received the French “Victoires de la Musique” prize for contemporary composition (the French equivalent of the “Grammies”) in 2001 for Kientzy Loops. He lived 15 years in New York, but in 1983 settled in Paris, where he lives with his wife, the artist Esther Ferrer.’ — lovely.com

‘Study for Player Piano #1’



‘The Dynamic Duo are tied to a conveyor belt of a hole punching machine that creates paper music rolls for player pianos. Batman observes how the machine operates, and deduces a clever way of evading perforation by calculating the notes necessary to make the plunging punches miss and then overpowering the sound of the piano. When he and Robin capture Harry, Harry squeals that a guy named Fingers is the ring leader. Batman deduces that Fingers and Chantell are the same man, and soon unravels the rest of the evil plot.’ — TVRage

‘The Dead Ringers’


Annie Gosfield

‘Annie Gosfield lives in New York City and divides her time between performing on piano and sampler with her own group and composing for many ensembles and soloists. Her work often explores the inherent beauty of non–musical sounds, and is inspired by diverse sources such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 records, and detuned radios. She uses traditional notation, improvisation, and extended techniques to create a sound world that eliminates the boundaries between music and noise, while emphasizing the unique qualities of each performer. A 2012 fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, and the recipient of the 2008 Foundation for Contemporary Arts’ prestigious “Grants to Artists” award, Gosfield’s essays on composition have been published by the New York Times and featured in the book Arcana II. Active as an educator, she has taught composition at Princeton University, Mills College, and California Institute of the Arts.’ — anniegosfield.com

‘Shoot The Player Piano’


Györy Ligeti

‘Gyorgy Ligeti was, along with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Boulez, one of a group of composers which revolutionised postwar music. Rejecting classical musical forms and creating often sparse and atonal works, they continually withstood the derision heaped upon them by generations of critics. Like Bela Bartok, Ligeti was fascinated by folk music and initially produced a number of arrangements in that idiom. Perhaps his most notable, certainly his most famous, piece was Atmospheres from 1960. This work featured, along with Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux Aeterna, on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.’ — BBC

‘Étude pour Piano No. 9’



‘Trimpin, a sound sculptor, composer, inventor, is one of the most stimulating one-man forces in music today. A specialist in interfacing computers with traditional acoustic instruments, he has developed a myriad of methods for playing, trombones, cymbals, pianos, and so forth with Macintosh computers. He has collaborated frequently with Conlon Nancarrow, realizing the composer’s piano roll compositions through various media. In describing his work, Trimpin sums it up as “extending the traditional boundaries of instruments and the sounds they’re capable of producing by mechanically operating them. Although they’re computer-driven, they’re still real instruments making real sounds, but with another dimension added, that of spatial distribution.”‘ — Other Minds



Mario Bros.
(on Synthesia)
Synthesia is a video game and piano keyboard trainer for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X, as well as Linux using Wine, which allows users to play a MIDI keyboard or use a computer keyboard in time to a MIDI file by following on-screen directions, much in the style of Keyboard Mania or Guitar Hero. It was originally named Piano Hero due to the similarity of gameplay with Guitar Hero; however, Activision (the owners of the rights to Guitar Hero) sent a cease and desist to the program’s creator, Nicholas Piegdon. Synthesia was originally an open source project, but seeing the potential commercial value of the program, Piegdon decided to stop releasing the source code (version 0.6.2), however leaving the most recent open-source release available for download. While the basic functionality is still currently free, a “Learning Pack” key can be purchased to unlock additional features, such as a sheet music display mode.’ — synthesis.eu



Marc-André Hamelin

‘Marc-André Hamelin began his piano studies at the age of five. He has made recordings of a wide variety of composers with the Hyperion label. He is well known for his attention to lesser-known composers especially of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Leo Ornstein, Nikolai Roslavets, Georgy Catoire). Hamelin has also composed several works, including a set of piano études in all of the minor keys, which was completed in September 2009. Although the majority of his compositions are for piano solo, he has also written three pieces for player-piano (including the comical Circus Galop and Solfeggietto a cinque, which is based on a theme by C.P.E. Bach), and several works for other forces, including Fanfares for three trumpets.’ — guardian.co.uk

‘Pop Music for Player Piano’


Dan Deacon

‘Dan Deacon is a Baltimore, Maryland-based electronic music composer/performer. He attended the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College in Purchase, New York, where he played in many bands, including tuba for Langhorne Slim and guitar in the improvisational grindcore band Rated R. Dan Deacon’s compositional style is best classified in the future shock genre along with videohippos, Santa Dads, Blood Baby, Ecstatic Sunshine, Ponytail, and other bands in the growing Baltimore music scene. Since 2003, Deacon has released eight albums under several different labels. Deacon also has a renowned reputation for his live shows, where large scale audience participation and interaction is often a major element of the performance.’ — discogs.com

‘Become a Mountain’


Xiao Xiao
Andante visualizes as animated characters walking along the piano keyboard that appear to play the physical keys with each step. Based on a view of music pedagogy that emphasizes expressive, full-body communication early in the learning process, Andante promotes an understanding of the music rooted in the body, taking advantage of walking as one of the most fundamental human rhythms. This video shows three example visualizations. – Scales played by different characters. – A character playing a boogie woogie bassline. – A Bach canon with each voice as a character.— xx




Minecraft is a sandbox-building independent video game written in Java originally by Swedish creator Markus “Notch” Persson and now by his company, Mojang. Minecraft is focused on creativity and building, allowing players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world. Gameplay in its commercial release has two principal modes: Survival, which requires players to acquire resources themselves and maintain their health and hunger; and Creative, where the player has an unlimited supply of resources, the ability to fly, and no concept of health or hunger. A third gameplay mode, named Hardcore, is essentially the same as Survival, but the difficulty is locked on the hardest setting and respawning is disabled, forcing the player to delete his or her world upon death.’ — minecraft.org

‘Ode to Joy’


Memory Tapes
‘If the role of a judge is inevitably sombre, then this wouldn’t be a mood misplaced in judging Memory Tapes’ new album by its cover. As a title, Player Piano gives us a sense of Victorian-cum-Edwardiana far removed from the vaguely modernist pastoralism of Dayve Hawk’s debut outing as Memory Tapes, Seek Magic. The mood of the séance, of the all-too-fleshy ghost in the machine (or vice versa), is played out in the sinister yet charming album art recalling the troubled sexuality of the medium as liminal locus of interpenetration: the vulnerable body, the orifice-issuing ectoplasm, the speaker as spurting speculum, the Succubesque presence of the fox spirit.’ — Tiny Mix Tapes

‘Wait In The Dark’


Igor Stravinsky

‘The Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky identified himself as an “inventor of music.” The novelty, power, and elegance of his works won him worldwide admiration before he was thirty. Throughout his life he continued to surprise admirers with transformations of his style that stimulated controversy. Stravinsky died on April 6, 1971, in New York City and was buried in Venice. His approach to musical composition was one of constant renewal. Rhythm was the most striking ingredient, and his novel rhythms were most widely imitated. His instrumentation and his ways of writing for voices were also distinctive and influential. His harmonies and forms were more elusive (difficult to grasp). He recognized melody as the “most essential” element.’ — igorstravinsky.com

‘Étude pour Pianola’



p.s. Hey. ** wolf, Star gazing star! No idea where that came from or why. I like the word skill better. I think some people mean skilful when they say competence. Skill, I’m into, but self-taught skill is a lot more interesting than schooled skill for the greatly most part. A novel isn’t a car that you need to learn preset, established skills to be able to manufacture or repair, and yet the novel, and fiction in general, is really often taught that way: ‘This is what a novel is, and here’s how you write one.’ Obviously, the kind of novel that results works for a whole lot of people, and more power to both them and their favorite authors, but you end up with novels that people are happy to read because they’re inherently familiar and the art part is just has to do with how lapidary and graceful and lush and surprising in only the most delightful ways their writing is. If a novel isn’t forceful or fascinating enough to an author that it jars the writing itself, I’m just not interested. What you say about the leak from creative fields into the corporate world seems really true, yeah. Big up. You need to lure a crow to your window sill. Those guys can do anything. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I did read that Scorcese piece on Fellini, and, yeah, it’s excellent. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, B. Yeah, I wish this blog was more phone friendly. When I make it, I never even think that people might look at it on their phones, I guess because my own phone is just a telephone, message sender/receiver, and camera. Too late now. How are you feeling? Things okay? ** Misanthrope, Hi. Yeah, I’m in a few groups on FB, but I only look and read. Very, very rarely I’ll add my two cents to the Guided by Voices group, but that’s it. So … your mom called, I hope. Naval Academy, right, that’s it. Sounds very nice, man. ** Dominik, Hi!!! SCAB! New, giant, unpleasant SCAB! I’ll be holding my breath or at least fantasising that I am because, you know, otherwise I’ll die and not be able to read the new SCAB. My weekend was good enough, productive. There’s suddenly a bunch of stuff happening around the film prep, so I’m mostly onto that. Aw, now that love you directed at me is a guaranteed gigantic hit in my heart, thank you. Love like the gore that would result if this and this got into a huge, extremely violent fight and tore each other into a billion pieces, G. ** John Newton, Hi. I hope the Greenfield films are useful to her. Yeah, I read that Dean Corll book. If there’s a book about serial killers published before the early 90s, there’s about a 90% chance I read it back then. Wayne Henley wrote me a letter from prison once. And he sent along an autographed photo of himself. John Waters sent him my book ‘Jerk’, and he wrote to tell me he thought it was hilarious, which I thought was pretty weird. No, my new novel is about my relationship with my friend George Miles. It’s not about any of those things you mention. Well, a little bit about sex and drugs, I guess. No, I never wrote any of those postal books. No, I never wrote a true life thing for STH. I’m actually a person who’s not so into writing about my personal life. I don’t feel any need to share that stuff publicly. I never really liked writing non-fiction at all. I just did it to challenge myself as a writer and bring in money to live on, and I swore it off about 14 or so years ago Not my metier really. Enjoy your noirs. ** Bill, Hey. Now the downstairs neighbors think our building has mice because we bring them in and keep them as pets. Oh, I think that film was in the recent suicide forest post? Or if it wasn’t, it should have been. I’ll look for ‘I Blame Society’, gracias. A film that’s hip or whatever enough to have Nick Antosca do a cameo sounds pretty intriguing. Huh. ** T, Hi, T. I’m so happy the post interested you that much and that you even watched things in it. That’s, like, the blog’s most fervent daydream come true. I didn’t actually watch that VOD thing. I checked it to make it was real, but that’s all. Could be a region thing. People often link me to things that France does not allow me to see. And I guess vice versa. Wow, it’s still only Tuesday so I think there’s still time to find a way to make my week racedog-like, and I’m going to do my utmost, thank you. I hope your week is like a battering ram laser-targetted at every potentially boring instance. ** Sypha, Hi. They don’t know what annex means? That’s some clientele you’ve got there, man. I hope your intervention gets my book into Fiction. The Romance crowd would not be happy. ** Brian O’Connell, I’ll take your morning and see you an afternoon. Yep: these days. I would start with Denis’s earlier work. I personally thought her last couple of films were rather dreadful. Yes, it was ‘Horror Noire’. It’s no great shakes in the documentary film department, but it’s informing and pretty charming, I thought. What an interesting, or, hm, maybe not, time to study American government, given its current disastrousness. Happy you’re digging ‘Eustace Chisholm’, cool. Interesting that the Logic course is a blinding snooze, but I can imagine how that would be. I wonder if one really needs to take a course about Logic to understand logic, but that’s showbiz, ha ha. Your Monday was very interesting to read about, so there’s that, I guess. I’m mostly doing a bunch of grunt/leg-work for the next film right now, and today should just add more to that, but we’ll see. I hope yours is full of shiny stuff. ** Shane Christmass, Howdy, Shane. I’m on it. The manifestos book. I like motels. Nice. Oh, right, it’s like late summer where you are, right? It’s still scarf weather here, but today just might be the day I start leaving mine behind. Sunlight galore to you, sir. ** Right. So, guess what? Player pianos aren’t just those things you put coins into in certain old pizza parlors. Did you know that? Well, now you do. See you tomorrow.

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  1. Dennis, Player pianos interest me. Like, here I am learning guitar…and I could just skip all these steps and get a player piano. 😛 😉

    I’m in N-D group on FB and we also have a chat with about 20 or so of us. I comment in the latter, which is pretty much an anything-goes type chat. Food, art, day to day shit, videogames, etc. All writers and musicians and artists and stuff. We can get quite silly and rowdy.

    Otherwise, I barely comment in my other groups, except for maybe a little snarky stuff here and there. In my Timothee Chalamet group, people got a little upset on a thread about how he never wears the same clothes twice when I responded that he probably wears the same underpants every day and never washes them. Couldn’t help myself. Some of those peeps are insane. Imagine a Teen Beat fan group full of 20-to-60-year-olds. Eek.

    Yeah, my mom did call. She’s got an appointment Thursday. She’s feeling better but still having some symptoms she doesn’t like. It’ll be interesting what her doc has to say.

  2. A HREF=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BX9MCyO6smk”>Here’s George Gershwin via player piano.

  3. The artist Evan Holloway has some sort of player piano project with the MOMA collection that I’d very much link to if I only could, sigh. I do recall Tom and Jerry being trapped inside one during a scene.

    Life in the hospital is finally progressing as the physio staff have procured a boot for me today! It’s a big chunky cyberpunk-looking thing that means we can try some walking exercises and hopefully start to figure a plan out of here over the coming week.

  4. Hi!!

    Haha, please do stay around to read the new SCAB! And, you know, to do many more things.

    Oh! Do tell, please? If you can talk about what’s happening around the film preparations. That’s really exciting!

    I guess it’s not really a question who’d win that fight, hahaha. Though… maybe Katy Perry would surprise Merzbow with some sneaky pop attack; who knows? Love obsessed with the conspiracy theory that Avril Lavigne died and has been replaced by a lookalike in 2003, Od.

  5. Dennis, marshmallow-filled balloon caught in a snow-drift and wondering how the fuck that happened but suddenly realizing it’s inside a snowball and exploding with glee, coating the inside of the glass with bright pink goo!
    This is a beautiful day. The Quietus had a great article about non-keyboard synths the other day, you’d like it.
    You make a lot of sense, thanks buddy. Yes, I think maybe the line between competence and skill is one of cultural context, or at least in my mind. I am reading Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ Sleepovers on your recommendation, and it’s really good, and pleasingly skillful. Skill is something I do enjoy witnessing in all arts but especially writing — those “damn, that was nicely done” or “ooooh, let me read that sentence again” moments are great. I’m probably not as strict as you are in my requirements, but that’s nothing new. I was reading about how in Zen the concept of eternal rebirth is not really about actual, biological death and rebirth but the re-assignment of self-identity over and over, karma being simply our error in expecting that our action should have an impact, therefore begetting yet more necessity of action in an illusion of power, and… yeah. I don’t know how that ties to the writing discussion, but I feel like it does somehow. Since complete spontaneity is the way out of this mess, does it mean that skill is irrelevant? Or does it build up regardless? I’m totally lost now. You’re right, I need to talk to a crow. They *know* shit. But they’re too smart to bother messing with us.

  6. Oh wow, forget therapy, a battering ram is absolutely the ideal utensil for life right now. I would probably wreak havoc with it, but I will try to wield it with gratitude and responsibility 😉

    Pianos are completely wasted on the two puny hands of a pianist. I was slightly acquainted with the history of player pianos, but wow, they’re so versatile. So many gorgeous sounds… As somewhat of a music tech nerd it was interesting how their notation has been directly translated to the ubiquitous ‘piano roll’ in the development and operation of MIDI-based controller software (ie Synthesia and then every other DAW going it seems). I would really like to see one of these compositions but using the entire capability of the MIDI protocol (around 200,000 individual frequencies per octave). That Tom Johnson piece would sound even more bendy and delicious scaled up to 1,000,000 -note chromatic clusters rather than 40.

    Otherwise it was somewhat of a nostalgia trip for me, since Bill Brian and Stefan of the Olin College have managed to recreate with pinpoint accuracy the soundtrack to the many torturous hours of compulsory music class in school. If they can get their machine to play broken renditions of the theme music of pirates of the caribbean, it will be spot on.

    Finally, the scene with Batman and Robin tied up on a conveyor belt, about to be crushed under the hammers of a giant player piano whilst Liberace himself looks on from the pianist’s stool is… well…

    Gosh, had not intended to write so much! What can I say, your blog brings it out of me… Have a great Wednesday, speak soon!

  7. hi dennis !! thanks for this piano day, it was cool

    i have one student who got a keyboard for xmas and she keeps showing me one finger songs that she’s learned on her own — her dad says that music lessons are too expensive right now — and the black sabbath video got me thinking she might enjoy some of those type of videos. i didn’t send her any black sabbath tutorials, but i found a baby shark tutorial in that style, and the adams family theme song. anyway, thanks for spreading the joy of keyboards today 🙂

    i’m so sorry that i missed thanking u and everyone else for re-upping the houston rap day !! i’m way belated on that, that’s so rude…i apologize. it was really great to dig into that post again, thank u a million times a million for hosting it

    i’ve been getting more and more into grindcore this year and a few weeks ago i saw that Pig Destroyer is a fan of yours and cite u as an influence !! i’m sure u know that already, but it was a fun thing to discover out the blue. such a good band.

    i hope ur having a great morning !! take care 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  8. Brian O’Connell

    February 24, 2021 at 4:54 am

    Benedictions, Dennis,

    I read somewhere—probably in relation to the obvious Michael Haneke movie—that piano players have to work exceptionally hard to stand out, because their practice is less free form and the process of playing somewhat more mechanical than it is with other instruments. If that’s the truth, this coterie of remarkable players are some of the hardest workers ever. Bravo.

    Notes taken about Denis and “Horror Noire”. The Logic course is a snooze because, rather than being about the process of argumentation and debate as I’d assumed it was when I signed up, it is centering a lot around symbolic logic, which is as visually similar and about as comprehensible to me as mathematics, i.e., it’s unintelligible. It’s a real struggle. Oh well. Your film work sounds more exciting. (Is it?)

    Today was a drag wrt to work, but it did have a shiny thing: Criterion’s annual last-Tuesday-of-February 50% off flash sale, huzzah. I picked up “The Human Condition” and “Bigger Than Life”. Both are sort of blind buys, “The Human Condition” especially, so that’ll be interesting. I figured if someone had the balls to make a nine-and-a-half hour film criticizing their home country in the wake of a devastating war loss, I should at least do them the service of trying to watch it. That was my treat. Et tu? G’night.

  9. Holy Calliope, Denman. This was nothing less than rad. Some intrepid inventor should create the “player typewriter.” It produces the writer’s thoughts like Batman claims he “visualized the chords in my mind!” (I could use one because I have just 2 hands for 10 projects on my plate.) Extra points for the Ligeti. Looking forward to next huddle and hope the arrondissement gods smile on you this week.

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