Pamela Feo
Boston University

“So intangible a thing as a pianist’s touch”: Listening to the Body in Player-Piano Performance

The effects of early recording technology on music reproduction, dissemination, and reception have long been explored by way of the phonograph. The player-piano, however, with its unique claims on listener expectations, offers a compelling entry point into more recent issues of scholarship regarding listening practices and theories of the performing body. Early player-piano performance was akin to neither a phonograph recording nor a live concert, but combined elements of the two: the experience of hearing a “recording,” or piano roll, as it reanimated an instrument with the help of an operator, offered the acoustics and even certain visuals of a live performance, but without the presence of the recording artist’s body.

In this paper, I examine accounts from the United States and England to show how the player-piano was marketed for this very element of bodily encoding. Advertisements and reviews demonstrate that narratives which centered on the body remained crucial to the instrument’s success throughout the first several decades of its development: first to distinguish it from mere machinery, and later, as the technology improved, to emphasize the recreated nuances of touch of the original recording artist. Building upon Carolyn Abbate’s work on the aesthetics surrounding the uncanny presence of the body within the machine, I bring this phenomenon into broader conversations regarding rituals of listening. Given the player-piano’s blend of recorded and live operation, I also examine the instrument’s reception in light of the work of Philip Auslander and other scholars engaged with listening practices to show how it complicates theories of “liveness,” mediation, and acousmatic sound, and I contend that we expand our exploration of listening and technology to include a consideration of the performing body. Finally, I propose that the player-piano’s early appeal offers greater insight into the affective responses elicited by music’s material objects, as the commercialization of the instrument’s unique capabilities countered anxieties surrounding the absence of the body in recorded sound.

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Pamela Feo is a doctoral candidate in Musicology at Boston University, with previous degrees from Tufts University. Her past research centered on the French fin-de-siècle composer Rita Strohl, about whom she has written an entry in Grove Music Online. Her current work focuses on early twentieth-century French music and the interplay between music and social space in Paris after Haussmann’s urban restructuring project. Other research interests include the intersection between music and literature, Luciano Berio’s staged works, sound studies, and listening practices.