Rex Lawson, concert pianolist

We talk to the pianolist about the history of this almost-abandoned instrument and Gabriel Jackson's new work, Airplane Cantata, for choir and pianola

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This month Rex Lawson will perform in the world premiere of Gabriel Jackson’s work Airplane Cantata with the BBC Singers. We spoke to him about the pianola and why he thinks we shouldn’t give up on this fascinating instrument.

What exactly is a pianola?
It’s a roll-operated instrument that first came to life at the very end of the 19th century. It was designed originally so that more people had ready access to music, because there were no record players. The original pianola fitted in front of an ordinary piano. It had a set of felt-covered fingers that sat over the keyboard and it used a perforated paper music roll as an alternative to the sheet music. You sat in front of it and there were a pair of pedals to operate it. All it relieved you of doing was pressing down the keys on the piano with your own fingers, but it didn’t stop you making the music.

Why did you decide to focus on the pianola?
I did music at Nottingham University and I took a liking to pianolas – there was one in an antique shop on my way home every night and I used to pass it and drool through the window. It took me a while to realise that it was actually a musical instrument, though. I think early on I was interested in the mechanics.

Isn’t it very much a historic instrument?
I don’t see why one should write the pianola off as being something of the past – so are harpsichords but people still play them in concert. If you go to YouTube you will find the most awful number of dreadful pianola videos because people have forgotten that you have to play it – they think you simply bung a roll on, drink a pint of beer and bash your feet. That’s a travesty of what the instrument ought to be. In June 1912 the London Symphony Orchestra gave a concert at Queen’s Hall conducted by Arthur Nikisch. Easthope Martin, a pianola expert, had all the rolls of the Grieg Piano Concerto, and he was the soloist. I suspect the LSO would look at you in horror if you suggested that nowadays. It’s taken me 35 years to get people to take the pianola seriously – and they have, finally, but it’s been a hell of a long time.

You’re performing in Gabriel Jackson’s Airplane Cantata, on 24 October. Tell us a bit about the piece.
It’s very descriptive and witty, and remarkably descriptive of early planes. His music is very pleasant on the ear – and it’s also quite friendly for the person who’s transferring it onto the pianola roll. In the early days I used razor blades for cutting out the holes and 10 minutes of music would take over a month to do. For every trill I’d have to cut out loads of tiny little squares. Nowadays I use a computer programme.

What can the pianola do that a piano can’t?
In Gabriel’s piece, for example, there’s a constant stream of notes on the pianola – not particularly loud, just there in the background, as the sound would be in an elderly plane. You’d be very hard pressed to do that on the piano because you just couldn’t keep up with the constant stream. And there’s almost no limit to the number of notes it can play at once. At the end of this concert I’m accompanying the BBC Singers in the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, a part that that’s originally for four hands. That’s no trouble on the pianola.

Is the role of the pianolist essentially a passive one?
Everybody understands what conductors do. But if you came down from space you’d say ‘what an earth is that person at the front of the stage doing? They’re clearly not playing any notes.’ But everyone not only understands what conductors do, they have very great respect for it. Yet people say to me ‘you’re not playing any notes, it’s the instrument that’s playing.’ A pianola plays inhumanly unless you make it play humanly. On the other hand it will always do what you tell it to, whereas an orchestra might well not.

Rex Lawson will be performing Gabriel Jackson's 'Airplane Cantata', along with other works by Stravinsky, Nancarrow, Brahms, Grainger and Rachmaninov in a concert with the BBC Singers, conducted by James Morgan, on Monday 24 October at St Paul's, Knightsbridge, London. The concert will be broadcast live on Radio 3 at 7.30pm

Interview by Elizabeth Davis