A new music concert will take place tonight at USC. Or maybe that should be a new old music concert. Either way, it will bring out of mothballs a technology whose heyday was the 1920s and '30s, when it was a main source of home entertainment before being eclipsed by radio and the record player: the player piano.
"The Player Piano Project," featuring 23 works by composers from five countries, is the brainchild of USC composer Veronika Krausas, who was inspired after her landlords gave her a player piano a few years ago for Christmas. They had tried to sell it, but nobody wanted to buy.
"It was a beautiful instrument, and it seemed a shame to have it as just a piece of furniture," says Krausas. "So I got the idea, why not ask all my friends who are composers to write some music for it? It was a wacky, far-out thing to do."
The composers, it turned out, agreed.
"The whole point of writing for a player piano is that you can do things that a human can't do, sort of like an octopus playing the piano -- not only an octopus but an octopus on speed," says Ceiri Torjussen, who got permission from John Williams to arrange the latter's "Raiders March" from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" for the program.
"I thought it would be hilarious to use a theme from my childhood, which I really loved and which people know, but skewing it to the point almost of unrecognizability," Torjussen says. "It's a pretty complex piece. There are two or three different tempos going on simultaneously, and also speeding up and slowing down in obscene ways. I tried to write a piece that wasn't playable by a human."
In fact, a player piano makes music using a pneumatic mechanism, driven by foot pedals, that depresses the instrument's keys by reading notes programmed on a rotating, perforated roll of paper.
A human operator can sit at the keyboard and play additional notes while the roll is rotating and, by manipulating levers below the keyboard, can add accents, change tempos and apply the sustain and soft pedals. Dynamics can be changed by varying pressure on the foot pedals.
Later models, like the one Krausas has, use electric motors to keep the air flow going -- although the motor makes a constant background hum.
"There's this nostalgia for these wonderful contraptions, a nostalgia for the days before everything was digital or put together overseas," says Brian Current, another of the composers Krausas contacted. "I always wanted to make player pianos a part of my music somehow. This was the opportunity."
For tonight, Krausas' piano has been moved from her Hollywood apartment to USC's Alfred Newman Recital Hall.
Two acrobat friends from Cirque du Soleil, Katia Sereno and Sebastien Stella, will serve as roll changers and perform in other ways. The bluegrass band Ed Glass and the Windowpanes and clips from a couple of silent films will also fill in the downtime.
The pieces run on average about three minutes. (A three-minute work needs a paper player roll about 30 feet long.) Most are new, but several have been adapted from earlier works because the composers didn't have time to write new ones.
"It was also something that everyone was doing for free," says Krausas, who wrote two of the pieces herself. "There was no commissioning money involved, unfortunately."
British composer Thomas Ades will probably have the greatest name recognition of the group. He's represented by a 42-second piece, "Sursum," adapted from his 1996 "Traced Overhead."
But others on the list, such as James Tenney and Larry Polansky, will be familiar to those in new music circles.
Conspicuously absent is any work by the late American Conlon Nancarrow, whose complex pieces for player piano inspired many of the composers.
But Tenney, a CalArts experimental composer who mentored a number of the participants, had a connection with Nancarrow.
"Nancarrow actually punched the rolls for the pieces that Jim composed in the '60s," says Lauren Pratt, Tenney's widow.
It was tough work too.
"He had done so much punching that his right forearm was twice as big as his left," Pratt says.
Tenney, to whom both tonight's concert and a CD of the program have been dedicated, died in 2006. But Krausas found there's still "this huge piano roll and mechanical instrument subculture. I had no idea. The minute I Googled trying to find someone to do piano rolls, I found a gentleman in Nevada, Bob Billings, whose name is 'The Perforator.' He did some of the rolls. The other gentleman was David Saul, who lives here in California. They were both terrific."
The composers e-mailed the two men digital-interface files of their music, which the perforators converted into paper piano rolls, thereby reversing 80 years of technological progress.