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.

‘A passion for experimentation and exploration is the lifeblood of the Conservatoire.’ An interview with Andy Ingamells

Andy Ingamells

To say goodbye to our iconic Brutalist home at Paradise Place, we present CODA; a two-day marathon of new music featuring the likes of Howard Skempton, Fumiko Miyachi,  & Kate Halsall, Eric McElroy, Michael Wolters, Seán Clancy and many more.

The grande finale features Andy Ingamells’ celebrated Piano Recital, an intriguing and destructive piece featuring a mixture of red paint and glue being poured into an upright piano as the performer battles against the chaos that ensues.

Featuring piano favourites from the history of experimental music including the music of Howard Skempton, Louis Andriessen and George Maciunas. We caught up with Andy to find out what the hell he is thinking…

1) To celebrate the life of the Conservatoire at Paradise Place, you’ll actually be painting the town red, or at least the Recital Hall. Why red? 

Red is a bold colour. It’s the colour of passion but also the colour of blood. A passion for experimentation and exploration is the lifeblood of the Conservatoire.

Here’s a video from the Conservatoire of a piece where the audience make violins pop balloons with their bows:

2) It’s quite an angry colour, red, often used for warning signs, should we be worried about elements of danger in the performance?

Some people might think that the act of just leaving the safety of your home to attend a performance is dangerous in itself. Perhaps there’s a danger that you might enjoy the performance and want to do this kind of thing yourself. There’s also a danger that this piece might not work. It’s unpredictable!

3) What happens to the piano once the performance is finished? It must be beyond repair by the time you’re done…?

The piano will be transformed into a different kind of object during the performance, with new possibilities. Something exciting could be done with it (if anyone wants to take it)! If not then it will be covered in rubble as the Conservatoire building comes crashing down around it, which is also exciting! Perhaps the slabs of concrete hitting the strings will make brand new chords, but nobody will be around to hear them.

Andy Ingamells Piano Recital

4) I’ve read in your performance blurb that, amongst other things, this piece is a meditation on narcissism. Narcissism is generally considered a negative trait, yet some of the greatest works of art ever produced have been conceived by those with great egos. Therefore, do you think it is necessary for an artist to be narcissistic?

I’m not a pianist, but have gone through a process of learning the piano for this piece. A video diary runs throughout the performance, showing my anxieties and vulnerabilities as I battle with the instrument and my own musical shortcomings. It’s a struggle!

I find unorthodox ways to perform with instruments. For instance, I once performed a sword demonstration using a violin bow (see photo at top of post).

5) Apparently you will play until you reach a sticky conclusion. Is this a metaphor for something I wouldn’t want my mom to see?

The piano is going to be gradually filled up with thick wallpaper paste over the course of the performance. The glue changes the notes that are played and changes the sound in an unpredictable way. This piece is for people who are interested in liveness. In the live moment you can smell the paint and see how the glue sticks the hammers and keys together. It’s rare to see and hear something like this. It doesn’t happen every day!

6) Once this Piano Recital is done, would you be interested in pouring paint over a full Symphony Orchestra? There’s one playing at Town Hall on 23rd June – I’m sure it’ll be fine.

I’m interested in expanded musical worlds that are open to all, in composition as new experience. This year I invited members of the public with no prior musical experience to conduct a brass band, distorting and shaping their music to create a completely new piece. There’s more information about that project here.

Andy Ingamells performs Piano Recital as part of CODA on Tuesday 20 June at Birmingham Conservatoire. Tickets are available here.

More information on Andy’s work can be found at, and you can find more videos here.