Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg, The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel

Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg, The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel (Ashgate, 2015) 222 pp. £60 hb, ebook PDF, ebook ePUB. ISBN: 978-1-4724-3998-7

In a book that showcases the player piano and the Edwardian novel—or ‘the democratisation of music through technology and the storage of musical experience in literature’, as the author, Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg, explains—we are fascinated to learn that the player piano, or pianola, as it popularly became known, was invented by Edwin Votey in 1895 and launched on the market two years later, that the dimensions of the Edwardian piano roll could be 11.5 inches wide by nearly a mile in length, and that by 1901 an estimated 6,000 musical pieces were accessible in this format from shops and circulating libraries.  Björkén-Nyberg identifies the presence of the player piano in such diverse Edwardian fiction as E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and Maurice (written 1913–14), Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (1911), Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (1913–14), and Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs (1915), as well as lesser-known works such as M. E. Francis’s Christian Thal (1903), E. F. Benson’s The Challoners (1904), and Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest (1908). That said, the player piano and the Edwardian novel retire to the wings for much of the first chapter on ‘storing music in Edwardian fiction’ which is dedicated to ‘the general background of media theory on which the subsequent chapters rest’ (p.6).

This general background is remarkably varied, often surprising, and occasionally recondite, but Björkén-Nyberg argues for ‘an analogy between storing more music and providing more storage space for music as a topic in Edwardian fiction’ (p.5). The evidence offered includes the suggestion that ‘a book itself is a little machine’ (p.10), that ‘fictive material is a kind of waste product generated by the mechanical process of making music’ (p.15), and that ‘as the piano rolls with their musical inscription [ran] through the machinery, the emotions they evoked were inscribed in the print form of literature’ (p.16). This commingling of musical and literary narratives is extended to questions of musical ownership, given that the argument is that the player piano was a ‘slippery’ medium with ownership residing neither in the user, composer, piano, piano roll, nor player mechanism, but in an unequal and unstable concoction of them all, and that this instability spilled over into questions of legal copyright (p.26). Add to this broad base of discussion issues of performance practice for the concert virtuoso versus the amateur player piano ‘professional’ and the perspectives of Edwardian composers, audiences and music critics, and we spring at a lively tempo from the hypotheses of the first chapter to the deliberations of the second.

Chapter 2, ‘The Engineer’, returns to the mechanical aspects of the player piano, and the anticipation of its labour-saving properties in contemporary design and engineering. An argument that the Edwardian interest in the science of muscle fatigue and the mastery of time produced a musical machine that ‘turned the working class into passive consumers rather than active producers of culture’ (p.56) and resulted in an endless repetition of note-perfect but perfectly dull player piano recitals is presented alongside the fictional and fatigued Edwardian virtuoso who ‘internalised a mechanical discipline’ (p.57) and produced a succession of recitals that were equally monotonous and devoid of creative life. Juxtaposed with this main theme is some consideration of the amateurs whose errors brought music to life, and the musical gulf between the ‘musically illiterate’ amateurs who considered the music of the player piano ‘perfection’ and the ‘musically elite’ who considered it a ‘noise’ (p.84).

Enter the real-life virtuoso in Chapter 3, ‘The Performer’, wheeled up to the keyboard like an automated piano player; the appended invention that preceded the player piano. Paradoxically, though the manual dexterity of the virtuoso was lauded as a form of magic, his or her creative output was perceived as commensurately diminished. This sensory contradiction is considered alongside the confused demands of the Edwardian audience for sincerity in pianism but deception in conjuring and cinema (p.125), and the shared experiences of the conservatoire student and the industrial factory worker (p.115).

Chapter 4, ‘The Composer’, elevates the operator of the player piano from musical ignoramus to composer and interpreter, having control of the speed and volume of the recital and thereby able to produce a fresh interpretation of the score at every sitting: the virtuoso’s hands are now replaced by the amateur’s feet. Female pianists are the focus of this chapter, featuring as lacking in ‘productive genius’ (p.159), abusers of the sustaining pedal (p.165), interpretive rebels (p.167), and hostages to erotica (p.172). Also explored is the role of the player piano in ‘purging Chopin’s music of feminine excess’ (p.179).

Though Björkén-Nyberg confesses to beginning her investigations ‘with a high degree of trepidation’ (p.3) and some of her deductions may be challenging to follow linguistically, her book exhibits an impressive scope of research and a stimulating selection of collegial debate in the intersecting disciplines of media theory, feminism, literary studies, musicology, sound studies, and visual culture. If the mobility and speed of her deliberations leave some of her contentions unclear, there can be no doubting the overall power of her book to provoke scholarly debate. Apropos of which, if music is a language, and the script of that language may be recorded as tiny perforations on the mile of paper that constitutes a piano roll, what would be the effect of passing the paper script of Björkén-Nyberg’s book through the mechanism of a player piano? What emotions would the narrative evoke, what ‘music’ would it make, and how would that narrative be received? To quote one of the author’s many colourful and memorable citations (p.42), ‘it is the listeners’ responsibility to locate beauty in music, not the composer’s or performer’s responsibility to present it to them’. There is much in this book to ponder and debate.

Dr Marie Kent, Institute of Musical Research, University of London