To Robert Berkman, a piano-like instrument wrongly believed to play itself was the perfect challenge to his creativity.
Berkman, one of the world’s last traveling pianola musicians, will play the instrument, also known as a player piano, tonight at Schoenberg Hall. Berkman will perform dozens of varieties of ethnic music ranging from Japanese, Lithuanian and Jewish while attempting to preserve the joy and enthusiasm once provoked by the instrument.
Songs are played from rolls of parchment with small holes that correspond to keys on the keyboard.
The pianolist presses on the foot pumps, which release air into the chamber where the parchment is located.
The air passes through the small holes, which triggers a corresponding lever producing sound.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the pianola exploded in popularity.
The device entertained households as a karaoke-like instrument, drawing families together to play and sing along to the popular songs of the time. Although the notes played from the piano roll, the player could manipulate the expression through levers and foot pedals.
“What has been forgotten, especially in this country, is that it was initially regarded as an alternate means of playing the piano,” Berkman said. “They marketed it as a way of letting you make music even if you weren’t an accomplished pianist. … You could express yourself using the pianola because it would do all the fingering, and you could work the controls and the pedals.”
The rise of the radio led to a decline in pianola popularity in the early 20th century, and the Great Depression hammered the nail in the coffin for the status-symbol instrument.
Today, its popularity is reduced to pianola enthusiasts who collect rolls.
Yet even among collectors, ethnic rolls have been virtually ignored.
As a boy, Berkman was attracted to the amount of creativity the player piano allows players. In college, he visited the world’s last piano roll manufacturer QRS for an independent study project.
“I got into a six-year dental school program, where you go to school, and six years later, you emerged with your (Doctor of Dental Surgery), and it turned out I hated it,” Berkman said. “Then I visited the QRS factory, … and that’s what did it. I said this is what I’d rather be doing.”
The century-old way of manufacturing piano rolls attracted Berkman enough to leave the world of dentistry behind to build a career manufacturing, collecting and playing the pianola for more than 35 years.
Berkman will interpret many ethnic rolls while interjecting commentary between songs. And although the instrument is perceived to play itself, Berkman emphasized the critical importance of the player to interpret and add life to each note.
Along with an album, creating rolls for films and collaborating with composer Stephen Sondheim, Berkman has donated approximately 1,000 piano rolls to the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive, making it the only known ethnic piano roll archive in the world.
According to Maureen Russell, archivist and head of cataloguing at the archive, Berkman asked her if he could find a safe home for the rolls at the archive. Many institutions will not take piano rolls since they require a pianola to play back. Nevertheless, Russell and Berkman agreed that it was better to find a safe, secure home for the rolls in order to preserve them for future use.
Although the archive does not currently have the technology to convert the rolls to digital recordings, Russell said she hopes a future grant will enable them to do so in order to preserve and share the music for many generations to enjoy.
Aaron Bittel, archivist and head of digital projects, said he hopes Berkman’s ability to add life to the ethnic rolls will inspire enthusiasm for music from days gone by.
“We hope (the audience) walks away with some of the magic and our history,” Bittel said. “This is really the history of music, the music industry and this country. And it’s the history of immigrant groups in this country.”
Berkman said the magic he experiences while working with the pianola was what inspired a decades-long career preserving and sharing the instrument that once entertained Americans of all backgrounds.
“Even though I work with (pianolas) and understand them on a molecular level, I still find them magical,” Berkman said. “Despite my complete comprehension of what’s going on, I love them. I find them absolutely fascinating, and they enable me to make music.”