Brian Dolan's social and cultural history of the music business in relation to the history of the player piano is a critical chapter in the story of contemporary life. The player piano made the American music industry-and American music itself-modern. For years, Tin Pan Alley composers and performers labored over scores for quick ditties destined for the vaudeville circuit or librettos destined for the Broadway stage. But the introduction of the player piano in the early 1900s transformed Tin Pan Alley's guild of composers, performers, and theater owners into a music industry.
With remarkable economy, Brian Dolan takes us on a journey into a neglected but important corner of American cultural history, the player piano. Far more than a novelty, this instrument remade the entire piano industry in its image, forming a fascinating link between the Victorian piano-in-the-parlor and the modern era of mechanical reproduction. Dolan analyzes the player piano from a variety of angles, bringing to life the rich, human dimensions of the culture in which it developed and thrived. -- David Suisman, University of Delaware A fun read with some interesting stories. The author writes in an easygoing style and the book can be a quick read. Anyone who owns a player piano will surely want this in his or her collection. -- Steve Ramm Amazon.Com Review, July 1, 2009 The book is an absolutely delightful read that chronicles the author's travels in the West-coast world of player piano connoisseurs, collectors, aficionados, fans, museums of mechanical instruments, and sepia-toned memories as much as it illuminates the history of the invention. Dolan writes with all the fascination of a man in a museum filled with previously unseen masterpieces by his favorite artist. Much of the book gracefully oscillates between an ethnography of modern player piano culture, which roves through the houses of collectors, museums, and the National Association of Music Merchants convention, and a history of the growth, development, and demise of the industry. The descriptions and narratives are spotted with colorful figures, visionaries, and the myriad musicians who were part of player piano culture. While this book may seem from the outset to be a niche book, it is much more than just a quirky book about a side-slice of Americana. It artfully jumps genres, is a consistently smooth read, and presents thoughtful theoretical queries about the history of technology and socio-auditory culture. Southwest Journal Of Cultures Online, Summer Post 2, July 2009 In this fascinating book Brian Dolan shows that the player piano was the iPod of the early twentieth century. The piano rolls-an early form of digital storage-sold in the millions and transformed popular music and Tin Pan Alley paving the way for the arrival of radio, the phonograph, and the juke box. Based on original research and interviews with collectors, Dolan traces the practices of the hidden musicians who made this first form of recordable music and shows how artists likes Fats Waller first learnt their trade listening to the player piano before themselves adopting a unique style suitable to the new medium. This is a book for music lovers and scholars alike. -- Trevor Pinch, Cornell University, co-author of Analog Days: the Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer
Unfortunate, poorly researched and very inaccurate.2009/3/5
Dan C. Brown
The author based much of his research on personal contacts with some collectors and some limited literature review rather than on contact with authorities on the subject, review of the considerable technical literature, or contact with well-regarded restorers. Many technical statements are innacurate and misleading and there is little consideration of the other legal and technical developments (radio, phonographs, copyright and intellectual property rights) which likely played at least as much of a role in the entertainment industry as the player piano. This is one book to certainly skip.
Disappointing and too focused on Q.R.S.2009/8/12
As an engineer interested in mechanical music, I was pleased to find a new book on the subject of the player piano. Unfortunately, I can offer only a lukewarm recommendation for this one. It seems to be the work of an author who ventured into the history of the player piano for just a few years on a whim. Its focus isn't on the technology or the music (in spite the title "Inventing Entertainment") but rather on the social reception of the player piano and its role in the world of music during the pre-radio era. The marketing strategies and lofty claims of the various player piano companies are given much attention, along with the consequences of eliminating the need for human skill in music-making.
Its coverage of the personalities and companies of the era is spotty at best, with a strong focus on the piano company Story & Clark and piano roll manufacturer Q.R.S. (not a huge surprise, given that the author is the nephew of Richard Dolan, current Chairman and President of Q.R.S. Music and its subsidiary Story & Clark). Its survey of key personalities in the field spends most of its time on Q.R.S.' star piano roll arranger J. Lawrence Cook (an amazingly gifted and prolific man who deserves a book of his own), omitting equally-significant arrangers like Frank Milne and Adam Carroll. The Ampico, Duo-Art and Welte reproducing systems and their music are discussed very little and seem to be dismissed with implications that they were too elitist.
The author seems to paint current mechanical music enthusiasts as generally eccentric folks, and I was embarrassed to read the author's account of visiting a French philosophy professor in Paris and being unable to recall the names of any famous French pianists.
In its brief mentions of present-day player pianos, this book leads the reader to believe that Q.R.S. is the only company that exists or matters today in the player piano world, failing to mention Q.R.S.' larger competitors Yamaha Corporation (Disklavier) and PianoDisc, as well as the innovation of contemporary electronic player piano system pioneers, such as Wayne Stahnke and Raymond Vincent, that made Q.R.S.' Pianomation system possible. The social and cultural role of present-day systems is barely covered at all, and their technology is waved away with a sort of "gee-whiz, couldn't even begin to imagine how all that works" attitude.
I think this book could have been better if the author had stuck with the idea of creating a detailed history of Q.R.S. and its prominent roll arrangers, with his family ties helping to give an insider's perspective instead of creating the pressure to appear non-biased.
Author explains what the book is about2009/3/13
Hello all, I'm the author and am just writing an antidote to one star history buff Dan Brown. He was clearly imagining an entirely different book, and attempts to pan this one for not satisfying his preconceptions. It is a social history of the player piano and for obvious reasons does not provide a history of the phonograph or radio, about which many other books are readily available. I do refer to complicated issues with early copyright (and the implications of the exemption in the law for piano rolls) but not by providing a history of intellectual property law. Sorry. Astute readers will discover that I was in contact with restorers and authorities (those mentioned by name in the book might be offended at the allegation) but this book is not intended as a technical guide to how to restore a player piano. Any inaccurate technical statements that exist are not the fault of authorities, but probably subject to debate. It is, in fact, a book about when and how these marvelous machines first emerged in the marketplace--examining the history of a few as prototypes since there were many different kinds in production--and it is about the many people across the country who preserve this relic of our musical past today and taught me to appreciate the sounds of history. (It's also a book for anyone who found trying to learn to play the piano frustratingly difficult and admire "the player" for possessing such talent!)
For the rest of us.2010/9/14
This book isn't for those deep into player-piano history and technology, but for curious outsiders like me. I found it interesting and well-written. It's about reproducing pianos, but it's also about history as something as personal as memory and how that sticks with you. I don't doubt that Dolan has omitted stuff. I'm still unsure how such instruments work or how compatible competing firms rolls were. Could an Aeolian roll be played on a Welte-Mignon? Could a Duo-Art roll be played on Story & Clark? Given the sales figures, I'd imagine so, but Dolan doesn't tell me. I enjoyed the portraits of the enthusiasts. It's an eccentric bunch, in the sense that the population at large no longer shares their passion. And, yes, you do have to be a bit starry-eyed (and well-off) to collect instruments, as some do. I mean, just dedicating the space requires some devotion. It's not like collecting stamps. However, that passion makes the subjects sympathetic, rather than figures of fun. This book convinced me that the reproducing piano not only legitimately claims historical importance, but love.
The social history grabbed me. Dolan doesn't shove your nose in it but leads you along gracefully. I especially liked the sections on the African-American artists -- Fats Waller, J. P. Johnson, J. Lawrence Cook, and others -- who produced the rolls. At a time when many mainstream venues were denied them, the piano rolls offered a way to make not only money, but in some cases a living, simply because the artists were, to borrow Ralph Ellison, invisible men. Middle-class and upper-income households who never would have thought of blacks as anything but yard workers, cooks, and maids, ironically, entertained them in the parlor, through technology.
Again, I enjoyed the book, and I learned something from it as well.
Light reading and of more interest to the person interested in collecting Player Pianos2009/7/2
Light reading and of more interest to the person interested in collecting Player Pianos
I'll try to balance out the two reviews already posted before this one - the one-star by reader Dan Brown and the five star by the author. I think this book falls in the middle. If you are looking for a documented history of the Player Piano or how to repair one, this is not the book for you. But if you already own one and are part of the player piano collecting community (such as AMICA), then you'll find it a fun read and read some interesting stories. You know what you are in for when the FIRST chapter in the book is about the PEOPLE who collect Player Pianos (and obviously have large houses!).
No, I don't own a player piano (I ALMOST bought one years ago but it wouldn't fit through the front door!) I do, however collect antique phonographs and know the feeling of sharing your interest with other collectors and through collecting societies. (In fact, years ago, a friend took me to a local AMICA chapter meeting while I was on vacation in California.) And it was nice to read about the San Fillippo collection outside Chicago which I've also visited (because of the phonographs.)
The author writes in an easygoing style and the book can be a quick read. I learned some things I didn't know and am aware that I can research further on the Internet. I'm surprised that a book published in 2009 has no listing of Internet web pages or sites to go further into knowing more about these. Also, the illustrations are mostly of the performers (and very few at that.) I expected more illustrations of the different brands or styles of the pianos.
Anyone who owns a Player piano will surely want this in his or her collection. As for others, I'll recommend it as a discussion of the competition for the home entertainment dollar from 1910-1930 as the phonograph (cylinder and disc), and radio competed with the automated player piano.