Christine Fena
Stony Brook University

“Soulless Machines”: the question of “human expression” in player piano discourse, 1900-1930

In the first chapter of his 1922 player piano textbook, organist and author Sydney Grew defended the player piano against those who would call it a “dead mechanism.” Grew insisted that when played by a musician with the proper instruction and technique, a player piano was as capable of enlivening the “never-to-be-held inner part of our being” and expressing the “ethereal attribute of music” as any other musical instrument. In his book, The Art of the Player Piano, Grew was responding to the ongoing debate about whether a “mechanical” instrument could be “expressive” and have the “human touch.” Like Grew, many player piano enthusiasts from the first three decades of the twentieth century felt compelled to defend the player piano as a legitimate musical instrument. During this time, the rhetoric in an abundance of print media sought to settle the question of whether the player piano was capable of “human expression.” Questions about the “expressiveness” of the “mechanical players” became rhetorical focal points across a wide span of musical understanding and experience, resonating with debates about the role of the human body in the future of music and of society as a whole.

Although the merging of artistry and automation became present in multiple new technologies, the player piano was singular in that it housed an assortment of identities and functions within the historic body of a piano, including a playable musical instrument, a marvel of modern technology, a musical educator, a democratizing social force, a fashionable piece of furniture, and a playback device. This stunning concoction of social meanings makes the player piano an ideal object of study within a variety of contexts, including studies of consumerism, aesthetic democracy, and, as Adorno called it in 1934, the “prehistory of the gramophone.”

The focus of my paper, however, is to provide a targeted “reception history” of player pianos, one that analyzes the early twentieth century discourse that became particularly preoccupied with the question of how “expressive” different varieties of player pianos could be. In addition to textbooks by Grew and others, the paper examines essays by literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw and music critics such as Edward Dent and Olin Downes, poems and short stories published in popular magazines, conversations amongst physicists in the journal Nature, and instruction manuals and print advertisements from dozens of models of player pianos. An analysis of the rich rhetorical web of these historical texts reveals not only a chronological timeline of the player piano’s social meanings in both England and the United States, but also how the intersection of the piano and automation transformed what it meant to interact with art in both a productive and consumptive capacity. Through examination of the increased polarization between the “expressive” and the “mechanical” in the rhetoric surrounding piano music, one comes to a deeper contextual understanding of the increased ambivalence toward the role of human expression in music, and the role of the human body in an increasingly mechanized environment.

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Christine Fena’s research examines the importance of machine-age aesthetics, and especially the “piano as machine” idea, in the construction of an American brand of modernist music throughout the 1910s and 1920s. The player piano figures prominently in the central chapter of her dissertation (2011), in which she considers the instrument as a focal point for the human / machine encounter in everyday music experience, and the different ways such an encounter played out both at home and in the concert hall in the first three decades of the twentieth century. She has presented papers at National Meetings of the Society for American Music and the American Musicological Society on topics such as music and place in television advertising, the early reception history of Henry Cowell, and the “sensational” element in George Antheil’s relationship to his audiences. Awards include the Ackerman Prize for Excellence in Graduate Studies from Stony Brook University, the Mark Tucker Award for Best Student Paper from the Society for American Music, and the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education.

Since finishing her PhD, Christine has been teaching in the Music Department and in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University, and also the Music Department at St. Joseph’s College. She is currently pursuing a career in music librarianship, digital curation, and archives management, taking classes at Queens College, and will continue her studies in information science at SUNY Buffalo in Fall 2017.