The Painstaking Player Piano Project

When composer Maya Verlaak stumbled across an old pianola at the Conservatoire, her curiosity got the better of her. This led to a collaboration with a number of other composers, producing new works specially for CODA, a two-day marathon of concerts to mark the demolition of Birmingham Conservatoire’s home at Paradise Place.

Player Piano 2

We caught up with Maya to talk about this intriguing piece.

This looks like a fascinating, yet painstaking project – what gave you the idea?

A year ago I noticed the player piano in a corner of the Arena Foyer. I wasn’t sure if it still worked so I emailed (Early Music Lecturer and Instrument Curator at Birmingham Conservatoire) Martin Perkins about it. He said that it didn’t work anymore but that he already made plans to have it fixed and my interest in the instrument gave even more reasons to fix it. I said I was interested in researching how it works and after, to organise a composition student project with it.

I bet piano-roll isn’t easy to come by these days – where did you get it from?

Martin Perkins did this part of the research. He ordered them online from one of the only people who still sells them in the UK.

The images show you cutting the ‘notes’ out of the roll by hand – how long did each piece take to finish? What happens if you make a mistake? Is the roll ruined?

I takes long. There was a lot of frustration under the students but also a lot of creativity to resolve some of that frustration. The roll is not ruined when a hole is punched wrongly… you can always stick a little bit of masking tape on top of the hole!

Player Piano 3

This is an interesting mix of an old, almost outmoded instrument – yet using it to ‘perform’ new music. Were there any technical difficulties when using this rather old technology? Any ghosts in the machine, so to speak?

I noticed a lot of creativity in the ideas of the students. Of course there were also a lot of restrictions because of the ’old technology’ but together we always found our way around it or just incorporated the restrictions as main material in the piece.

Player Piano 4

Your blurb says you mentored a number of students – what should we expect from their works? Is there a variety of styles to be heard in the works, or have composers stuck to an ‘authentic’ Player Piano feel?

I think all the pieces will be quite special. 🙂

*the piano and rolls were kindly donated by David Purser.

Maya Verlaak and Martin Perkins perform Player Piano in the Recital Hall on Tuesday 20 June.