Debunking Piano Roll Mythology: An Interview with L. Douglas Henderson, Owner of ARTCRAFT piano rolls

Preface to the 2022 Republication of this Interview1

For those who are not familiar with how player piano rolls are made, a quick explanation is in order. Before 1912, rolls were “punched” manually into the paper, a few notes at a time, by a person operating a perforator. However, in 1912, Melville Clark invented a device called the QRS Marking Piano, and according to, it was in use until 1931.i

In short, a pianist (instead of a perforator) would sit down and play their piece. As they played, a stylus would “paint” lines on a blank roll inside the piano. These marks or lines correspond to the keys on the piano which the human pianist was depressing.

Hot Jazz Jubile

According to L. Douglas Henderson (the subject of this 1997 interview), the problem with this system is that the markings were, more often than not, inaccurate as to length of time and sometimes pitch, so an editor had to go through it, making corrections. And after a certain point with corrections, the question arises as to whether it is a “performance” or, in fact, an “arrangement.”

Douglas has always maintained that piano roll production is strictly an arranged medium. Douglas told me once that Vladimir Horowitz denied to his last dying breath that he ever made a piano roll. Also, according to Douglas, Pauline Alpert kept a slew of piano rolls in her closet which had purportedly been “recorded” by her when in fact this was not the case.

Some people, when confronted with the fact that there are too many notes on a given piano roll for a human being to play them all, explain this away as somehow some precursor of tape recorded “overdubbing.” They rationalize this by saying that the artist went back and performed “over the top” of the original performance. This is, frankly, utter nonsense. As we’ve established, the mechanism used to make the original “recording” was sufficiently flawed that it often had to be significantly corrected and/or edited by an arranger. Given that, the question remains as to how it is possible for a human being to go back and “re-record” over something that is often mostly inaccurate, and when they can’t even hear at that point what was purportedly recorded in the first place.ii

UpBeat Records

Sadly, Douglas has faced much hostility for his views over the years. During the time when I wrote this interview with him, Douglas said to me that he felt that too many piano roll enthusiasts were “piano roll fundamentalists.” On the other end of the spectrum, he referred to himself as a “piano roll atheist.” But Douglas was present during much of the heyday of piano rolls, and for a short time, he worked for Max Kortlander at the QRS factory in the Bronx, New York.iii Douglas was actually there! If anyone would know the truth, it would be Douglas. Further, he has nothing to gain by not telling the truth.

Douglas makes rolls which were not “orchestrations,” per se, but real piano arrangements using the full 88 notes of the piano which use fractions of a played note to imitate a human performance. This creates (in my opinion) rolls which are often much more interesting than the arrangements made by J. Lawrence Cook in the 1920s and 1930s. And, ironically, Douglas’ rolls sound closer to that of a human being than those of arrangers like Cook.

It is interesting to note that the device which QRS originally used was resurrected around 1973, and QRS invited a number of pianists, including Earl Hines, Max Morath, and Eubie Blake to “record” on it. I heard these rolls shortly after they were released, and I personally found them disappointing as, in my opinion, they did not reflect the true piano artistry of the purported performers. In fact, Douglas reported to meiv that Max Morath thought that Douglas’ arrangements of his music sounded closer to his real playing than that of the QRS rolls!

What follows now is the original interview, mostly as presented in 1997.

The Original Interview from 1997

L. Douglas Henderson began his perforating career over 45 years ago, starting ARTCRAFT, a small piano roll firm in the early 1980s. His rolls have been performed at the Louvre, on the cable channel CNN, and on concert stages throughout the world. He also publishes The Pianola Quarterly, a journal for pianola enthusiasts.2


A few years ago, Henderson was linked with a controversy surrounding a piano roll recording that he made of Percy Wenrich’s The Smiler rag.

It all began when Henderson was invited to give a demonstration seminar at an AMICA3 player club in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1990, his topic being called “Where’s George? or From Audio to GIGO” (Garbage-In-Garbage-Out, a computer term). This was the audio-visual presentation showing that Gershwin’s music rolls were not made by him, that they didn’t sound like his 78 rpm records (a tape was played to demonstrate) and that Henderson’s “Interpretative Arranging” process could closely imitate Gershwin’s keyboard style.

For AMICA seminar, Henderson created two Duo-Art piano music rolls. The first was “So Am I” from Lady Be Good, by George Gershwin, performed on an expression Steinway grand, after a tape of a Columbia 78 rpm record of the English cast (with Gershwin himself at the piano). The original was also played for the audience. Henderson then played the “played by Gershwin” version of the piano roll of “So Am I,” a ballad issued by Aeolian for Duo-Art and made by Robert Armbruster and using the composer’s name.


The second special roll was one cut by Henderson he calls “some highly flawed sheet music” that was used to make a MIDI disk that was controlled by a Yamaha Disklavier solenoid player, so that the audience could hear that the Armbruster pseudonymous “Gershwin” version was superior to a music roll that imitated the electronic instrument of today (purportedly playing a “perfect” roll transcription).

For the finale, Henderson played the BluesTone label piano roll version of The Smiler, “recorded by” Richard Zimmerman, an 88-note roll (“flawed” in the opinion of Henderson) and issued by Robert DeLand on his then-new “Front Porch” label. This was then compared to a brand-new piano roll version created by Henderson (cut in one copy for the seminar and with Duo-Art expression) that was similar to the version of The Smiler mentioned above, but which was, according to Henderson, “smooth and snappy” in its musical effect. Immediately after the talk, which Henderson gave twice, members of the audience requested copies of the version of the The Smiler which Henderson had arranged.

Thereafter, both Richard Zimmerman and Rob DeLand informed Henderson that they had copyrighted their roll (which was different from, but similar to Henderson’s). They also informed Henderson that he could not use their version as the basis of Henderson’s own roll. In response to this information, Henderson subsequently made a second arrangement after the AMICA convention, which was longer than the BluesTone roll, not possible for a human being to play, with one hundred percent different striking and many unusual breaks. This second version is the roll which Henderson then released and sold, under the banner of “A Special Pianola Arrangement.” The roll had a stamped message in the coda, suggested by Robin Pratt (the publisher of AMICA), saying “Don’t you wish you could play like this?” during a finale which Henderson describes as “virtuosic.”


About 110 copies of the Artcraft “Pianola Arrangement” rolls were sold when Zimmerman and DeLand wrote to Henderson, stating that he had to take his rolls off the market since this was copyright infringement. At that time, BluesTone had sold a reported 20 copies. Not wishing to violate any laws, Henderson requested the Library of Congress to conduct a search, which came up with two conclusions according to Henderson: (i) the music was in the public domain; and (ii) the Library of Congress had no record of either DeLand nor Zimmerman copyrighting any work described as The Smiler. To this day, Henderson says he continues to market his version of The Smiler in 88-note and DuoArt format, and approximately 250 rolls in this combined format have been sold. Henderson said to me that he sent copies of the Library of Congress search to some ragtime periodicals (including The Mississippi Rag), to argue against the claims of plagiarism made against him which were continuing in print. However, his side of the story, according to Henderson, has not appeared in print before this article. Henderson stated to this author that the ARTCRAFT version of The Smiler by Percy Wenrich is an exciting, expressive, and varied music roll arrangement, and is totally different from anything a virtuoso pianist could play at the keyboard. According to Henderson, “It’s a unique public domain music roll transcription.”

Copyright of compositions is often a thorny, tenuous business at best, and arrangements even more so. There is such a thing as “common law” copyright, but this is extremely hard to prove, especially in the area of arrangements. I have not tried to offer the final word in this dispute; I have merely tried to apply the facts as best I can so that readers can decide for themselves.


Obviously no stranger to controversy, Henderson has been, on occasion, silenced by both editors and reviewers alike for his view that “hand-played” piano rolls are frankly erroneous, and that piano rolls are almost exclusively an “arranged medium.” In keeping with the dictum, “the hotter the topic, the cooler the prose,” I interviewed Mr. Henderson as clinically as possible, in an effort to give him his “freedom of speech.”

Tell me about yourself. Where were you born, where did you grow up, what did your parents do for a living?

I was born in Sacramento, California, on April 16, 1938, to Dr. and Mrs. J. Lloyd Henderson. My father didn’t like his first name, “James,” so he swiped my “Lloyd,” forcing me to use “Douglas” with and without the “L” from then on.

My parents were not really musical but were in their 40s when my brother and I were born, so we had the benefit of the ‘Teens and early 20s as the background of home discussions and knowledge. Dr. Henderson was a text-book author and involved in dairy science at U.C. Davis, where we had a large pseudo-Tudor ’31 home…and my mother had been a secondary school teacher, returning to teach again – in primary schools the second time – after World War II. When I was about eight, we moved to the San Francisco Bay area (El Cerito, then Kensington) and this is where I spent my formative years.

Douglas playing one of his rolls around 1994 at the New England Ragtime Festival (in Connecticut), on the 1929 Reprotone.

Cities were relatively safe in the late 40s and early 50s, so I used the Key Route transit system to augment my horizons – at music stores, bookstores, public libraries and movie theaters – primarily in downtown Berkeley (Shattuck and Telegraph Avenues), Oakland, and San Francisco. This was the era of Swing, the San Francisco “Dixieland” jazz revival and a major live music scene in the region, highlighted by the very “independent” station, KPFA-FM in Berkeley, which featured many music programs and offered the BBC as well.

My grandparents were German farmers, and much of my life was spent at their modest rural location in Woodland, California, even after their move to the Bay area. Time was frozen in the 1900 – 1925 period there, from Edison phonographs and the Orthophonic Victrola to the woodstove lifestyle. It was heaven for me!

What kind of education did you receive? Where did you go to university? Did you enjoy it? Was it a useful experience for you?

My mother, realizing that I had an aggressive interest in ALL things around me, especially musical and literary ones (beginning with flash cards, word games, and educational pursuits), taught me to read and write before I entered Kindergarten. My K-12 was years were ones of academic achievement, and when graduating with all sorts of awards from El Cerrito High School in 1956, I went to directly into U.C. Berkeley, a campus down the road and long familiar to me as a teenager.

The Arts in Berkeley (silent movies with live piano accompaniment), the Cinema Guild (started by Pauline Kael in those days), the presence of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band (with Wally Rose, pianist, reviving Scott Joplin years before others were recording the elusive music)…all these put me into a center of a cultural phenomenon the likes of which will probably never be repeated. With very little money – and a good transit system then – I saw and heard Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Glenn Gould (boring), Eleanor Roosevelt, Anna Russell, Claudio Arrau (boring), the New York Pro Musica, Marcel Marceau, Virgil Fox, Robert Frost, and all sorts of people who came to the area – this being before Rock and Roll, television, and other influences (including drugs) canceled the artistic aura of the period. Remember, the Vietnam War and all the social changes it would bring was about six years away.

As for U.C. teaching me how to think, or giving me the tools for a livelihood, I give it no credit all. I got good grades, told the teachers (from the New Deal era) what they wanted to hear, and even ended up teaching a few graduate classes in Industrial Decorative Art/Design (as a sophomore) at one professor’s request. The Doe Library at U.C. and the environment were what stimulated me.

How did you become interested in music, and then interested in player piano rolls?

There was a player piano (used for playing musical chairs) at the Moderne House at the end of College Park, when I was a child in Davis. I was more interested in the mechanical piano than the game.

My mother’s aunt had a Gulbransen Registering (88-note) upright and my father’s relatives – who had wealth and lived in San Marino, California, whom we visited every so often – had a Knape-Ampico grand and a large collection of rolls.

Hollywood movies featured player instruments in many of those Alice Faye and “Turn of the Century” films of the time (often transposed into the 1890s when later 1920s instruments were being shown!) and my parents frequented Sutro’s and the Cliff House in San Francisco, then loaded with operating mechanical musical instruments.

Pianolas were a natural progression with my interests in music, and there were wonderful composers to be found in the St. Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army stores in that day: Gottschalk, Liszt, Joplin, Lehar, and much of the same music that I had heard on cylinder and disc records in my grandparents’ farm in Woodland. Upright pianos were always in homes, including ours – a large Jesse French cabinet grand – and everybody took turns playing some pieces, for better or for worse. This was an era when people got together, entertained themselves, and often performed or sang homemade music. Small-town America, with Woodland and Davis being my formative examples, disappeared with the suburban developments and television, so it’s hard to explain the social entertainment that took place before 1950 to those who didn’t live this type of slower life.

By 13, I had enough paper-route money to purchase a 1912 Kohler-built Harmony player, the steppingstone for a series of instruments.

Can you please tell me a little about the history of player pianos and roll manufacturing, in your subjective opinion?

The concept of programming with punched cards (or rolls) began with the Jacquard Loom, still in use today in some factories. While Europeans experimented with pianos and organs using mechanical and pneumatic playing methods, featuring the perforated roll concept, the industry, as such, was an American one. Beginning in the late 1870s with small tabletop player reed organs, there was a steady progression to full pneumatic control (using valves and pouches) leading up to the 1890s when the Aeolian Co. and others built player reed, pipe, and piano playing devices, usually sharing the same 58-note chromatic paper roll. Musically, this is a disaster since one plays piano keyboards and organ manuals differently!

Standardization began in the early 1900s with the 65-note scale, and finally in 1909 the international layout for 88-note tracker bars heralded the universal full-scale designs which continue to this day: 9-holes-to-the-inch. The piano industry saw the player action as an extra and spent little on the development of roll-arranging methods, which in those days were simply the direct transcription of sheet music scores [to the piano roll]. [Parentheically,]…nobody would, if they could, elect to play Chopin exactly as written, but this is what the 65-note and early 88-note rolls did in performance. Later self-playing expression players, misnamed reproducing pianos, added an electrical vacuum pump and special rolls which used marginal perforations to control the same hand levers which the pianolist graduated – for a robotic expression arrangement. These were marketed as reproducing actual pianists – Grieg, Hoffmann, Paderewski, etc. – when in fact most of the rolls were made from the same masters as the 88-note editions, but with extra perforations added to tug on the hand of the expression levers, or their equivalent. Electric audio and false advertising claims helped end the era in the early 1930s.

What made you decide to concentrate on making player piano rolls for a living?

Remember, I was steeped in parental discussions about the ‘Teens and grew up with adults around me (not other children), playing acoustic phonographs since the age of six, so the idea of acquiring a player piano as an adolescent was a natural one for me. By high school, I was already making music rolls for my own enjoyment and by the time I graduated from U.C. Berkeley, I was not only creating reproducing rolls – with phrasing – but corresponding actively with Max Kortlander, whose Imperial Industrial Co. in the Bronx was the successor to the original QRS Company, and which he acquired in 1931 during the economic collapse of its various divisions (cameras, gramophones, neon lights, radio tubes and speakers, musical toys, etc.).

Music rolls have occupied my mind, even to the point of perforating musical ideas in my head, for most of my life, so it wasn’t really a choice. I was driven, and this is what makes my approach completely different from those in the former industry. They were doing a job, and it could have been the manufacture of shoes or working in a restaurant kitchen. A product was being turned out, and there was no incentive to perfect the perforating methods. Many old-time music roll arrangers never owned a player piano and really had no interest in listening to one. They worked “visually” from a drawing board or graph paper and forced the music into a standardized formula. I saw rolls as an art form, something which had virtuoso possibilities. Perhaps my interest in Larry Adler (harmonica), Clara Rockmore (theremin), Andre Segovia (guitar), and even Spike Jones, who was very creative with percussion, musical effects, all played a part. I just knew that the pneumatic player could achieve more, and that was my focus.

Now, you worked at QRS piano roll company for a while. Can you describe your experiences there?

L. Douglas Henderson in 1997

The QRS plant in New York City was a dirty old factory, frozen in time, just as many bookstores, print shops and other surviving “trades” of those days were. Rolls were being made through scaled-down versions of the same methods which prevailed in the late ‘Teens and throughout the ‘Twenties, and save for me at 22, everybody was in the senior citizen category or close to it. I knew at the time that this plant – in this condition, on the second floor over a handkerchief factory, as I recall – couldn’t last much longer, running on bits and pieces of another era and with people so out-of-touch with the musical trends of the time.

Whatever I had to say about long-playing rolls, ragtime music, reproducing arrangements or the like, fell on deaf ears. The people there spoke as if they knew what the public wanted, and just saw the player-piano as something in the recreation rooms of homes, for sing-along parties. Instrumental music rolls didn’t interest them either; they believed rolls were for group singing activities.

What still amuses me is that the Kortlander brothers would look through Cash Box and various popular music magazines to see what the hits were, and then plan to issue a Johnny-come-lately roll version. The days of adults playing ten-inch 78 rpm discs in a Wurlitzer jukebox were over, along with the singing of Andy Russell, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and the Andrew Sisters as the national focus. Rock music on 200-title Seeburg models had taken over, and much of what QRS was cutting didn’t fit the pianoforte and wouldn’t appeal to teenagers (who had guitar accompaniment on most of their loud, echo-sounding popular 45 rpm records).

Who were the chief arrangers at QRS?

There was only one arranger at Imperial Industrial Co. making QRS rolls during the mid-1950s to the end of the Kortlander era, and he was J. Lawrence Cook, working in a small room just off the right, and down a narrow hall that led to the duplicating perforators and roll production area. Cook ran one of the two Melville Clark so-called “recording” pianos, which were just uprights attached to rather noisy Acme stencil perforators, cutting in the 2:1 ratio on heavy paper with sprocket holes, not unlike those used with motion picture film. The other similar instrument was in the basement of Mr. Cook’s home, also connected to a master roll perforator, and some of his work was done in that location as well. The QRS “recording” pianos were really “arranging” devices, since nobody played the instruments.

Earlier, Frank C. Milne did some work for Imperial Industrial Co., following his long association with the Aeolian Company, and its successor, Aeolian-American. In the halcyon days of QRS most of the work was done by Max Kortlander, Lee S. Roberts, and Lewis Fuiks4, often referred to by Cook in later years as the three musicians who cut rolls in the name of “visiting pianists,” and whose names were to be stamped on the released rolls.

Remember, this was a factory, churning out a standardized product according to rules and structured methods, so the focus was on getting the masters made, the rolls released, and the dealers receiving a steady assortment of titles on specific dates. Musical taste, imaginative arranging, experiments, and improving performance quality never figured into QRS rolls or any of the commercial rolls in the industry.

Arrangers were a replaceable and standardized commodity, so there were no “stars” there, just a routine job to be done.

How did you meet J. Lawrence Cook?

Some pivotal dates are always fixed in one’s mind. For me – beyond V-J Day, the Kennedy assassination and the Nixon resignation – the first personal encounter with J. Lawrence Cook took place on October 11, 1960, while he was arranging the Erroll Garner composition “Misty” at QRS, using the “recording” piano mentioned before. By this time the roll-making had become so methodical that the arrangements didn’t have to be played; Cook just held down piano keys, by hand or via the sostenuto tabs, and listened to the thumps of the counting operation. The Acme perforator, to the right of the upright, had a slipping-belt clutch system, adding the continuous sound of slapping leather to the procedure. As I recall, “Misty” went from this equipment to the hand-editing work to the duplicating perforators, without the need for a 1:1 playable roll to be made. The process was visual, from the sheet music to the moving counter to the corrections on the 2:1 heavy paper master.

A word about Mr. Cook: now that he’s dead, all sorts of revisionist information about him has appeared in the player clubs, especially the word “Cookie” for the man. Nobody called him anything but “Lawrence” when I was there, and it was obvious that he kept a professional distance between his work and the activities of the other employees.

He used the similar “recording” piano-perforator setup in his home to make, in addition to QRS Masters, “A,” “G,” “M” and “O” rolls for coin-operated, i.e., nickelodeon, electric players. His perforating jobs were spin-offs from extensive sheet music work for ASCAP, for publishing houses, such as the W.C. Handy Company, and for a variety of radio transcriptions. He thought in notation rather than in the linear nature of music roll perforations.

When did you leave QRS? How do you feel about having left the company?

Whatever I did for Imperial Industrial Co. was piecework, pay for a project, so I was not an employee in the real sense of the word. After 1963 I never returned to Imperial Industrial Co., for our mechanical music museum, the Musical Wonder House, was getting ready to open in Wiscasset, Maine. My period there was three years, on-and-off.

Because it was piecework, it did not pay enough for anyone to make a living at it, which is why Cook also had a job at the Post Office beyond his other musical activities. I was paid $25 for each of the rolls I cut for the QRS management and was told that Cook received double that figure, and, considering the appearance and state of the factory, I have no reason to doubt this statement from Herman Kortlander, Max’s brother. It was clear that the Kortlanders, who once fired Cook when he was on vacation in Haiti, wanted me to replace him, operating the noisy piano perforator, and continue making the same musical pablum.

I considered it an experience to work in the milieu of the old-style music roll factory and would never have made it a career, even with better pay, since my musical ideas were dismissed as if the public had never changed its taste or couldn’t be coaxed into trying something new on a player piano.

When did you start up “The Musical Wonder House”? Do you have a hand in running it now?

The Musical Wonder House (a.k.a. Music Museum) began in 1963, about the same time as the old Imperial Industrial Co. was heading for its final days in the Bronx. It was the brainchild of Mr. and Mrs. Danilo Konvalinka and myself. We had purchased an 1852, 31-room, Georgian-style mansion in Wiscasset, Maine, the year before and began the long trips from Georgetown in Washington, D.C., where Danilo and Lois had a musical box shop (and where I also cut the QRS Masters on a Leabarjan perforator). The museum combined our talents and collections, with most of the initial player piano material coming from my former home in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.

From the start, the museum was something original: instruments shown and played in historic settings, on guided tours and, during the peak of activity in the 1960s and 1970s, “Candlelight Concerts” on select evenings for seated audiences. To this day, nobody has duplicated the ambiance and presentations of the Musical Wonder House. The collection has been featured in innumerable magazines, guidebooks, television programs, and the Encyclopedia Britannica selected our Emerald Polyphon music box for the 1974 Fifteenth Edition, a.k.a. the Britannica 3 (still illustrated today!).

Lois Konvalinka retired from the exhausting work of decorating and managing the museum in 1986, the same year I set up ARTCRAFT Music Rolls around the corner as a full-time enterprise, and which began as a sideline at the museum in 1982. I’m still half-owner of the collection but have had no hand in its destiny after the first 23 years of my partnership there. I’d step in again if the situation required it, of course, since my expertise would be needed to resolve things or continue on with the seasonal operation.

What is the difference between “arranged rolls” and “hand-played rolls”?

The player piano and the electric expression “Reproducing” Piano are both an arranged music medium. Notes are selected by a perforated music roll, a type of programming that has nothing to do with any keyboard performance. The laws of physics and a stepping procedure dictate many of the musical decisions, and pneumatics do not possess the characteristics of striking which are the realm of the virtuoso pianist. Graph paper was the tool for many old-time arrangers, and, in electronic form, MIDI arranging for paper rolls repeats the homogeneous key depression problems in our day. Musically, however, both arranging methods are identical from the Pianola’s performance standpoint.

What are the drawbacks of running a piano roll company?

Music rolls, by their very nature, require many steps and extensive hand-labor from start to finish. Unfortunately, the prices of rolls were always tied to those for audio recordings in the old days, a mistake since the medium is not the same: interpretive involvement, i.e., rolls, versus passive playback, i.e., records, tapes, etc.

This same aspect of pricing one product against another continues today in the recordable magnetic tape (cassette) field and the playback nature of CDs and LPs, the latter of which haven’t totally died out in spite of industry predictions. The sad case of the compact disc, to date, was the 16-bit design with a sampling rate too low for stringed instruments such as a pianoforte…but the decision was probably made early on to keep the size and price down to the cassette level, when the two products were not mutually exclusive.

The No 8-B Leabarjan perforator used for creating rolls. About this machine Douglas says, “Here’s my 16 roll #8-B Leabarjan perforator (the three others being the 4 roll #5 styles). Until the Auto-Typist went off the market in the late 1970s, I could get pre-trimmed paper and start copying my own masters – using the stylus – for instant roll sales. The production copies would come from Play-Rite in California weeks later. Those were the ‘good old days’…today I use my remaining Auto-Typist paper for ARTCRAFT master rolls only.”

The pneumatic player industry in its heyday was fueled by piano sales, and player actions were considered an add-on. Thus, music rolls received even less study, development and/or subsidy. It stands to reason that Caruso, Paul Whiteman, or Billy Murray could make an Edison cylinder or Victor record more rapidly than a factory could churn out a representative music roll equivalent, unless corners were cut and arranging formulae were introduced. Had the public been educated about the nature of the “interactive” music roll, the history could have been different.

My one-person enterprise, ARTCRAFT Music Rolls, and the several short-lived ones which preceded it, took the quality route from the start, approaching the player piano from its own performance characteristics and cutting the rolls from that concept, void of a structured set of rules.

Still, low profits, even with premium quality rolls, priced accordingly, are the nature of this business. I see rolls as an art form.

What are the joys of it?

Words can’t describe the thrill of hearing my musical thoughts perforated and performing on a pneumatic player instrument. Unlike the factory methods and the committee working conditions of the commercial roll industry, I enjoy the luxury of working as a self-employed artistic craftsman, experimenting with musical ideas and experiencing the flexibility of “instant replay” at any part in the master roll cutting process. If something comes to mind, I can cut it and see where the performance will be going.

Of course, doing this work over the last 45 years – longer than anybody in the niche field of roll arranging – I have made use of the additional technologies which came my way. My earliest rolls in the 1950s and early 1960s did not benefit from plastic mending tape. Correcting mistakes with glued-on paper strips worked for a decade, but the master rolls from that period now make discords and would require additional handwork to be used today. The supposedly flexible glue hardened after many years! Cellophane tape was never suitable for roll editing either.

Tape recorders played a major part in my work from the start, having purchased an open reel Wilcox-Gay Tape Recordio in 1950. Today, I have remote control Tandberg decks (open reel and cassette) which allow me to work from the Leabarjan arranging perforators or the Steinway piano keyboards, plus a Sony-Marantz deck which gives me a 20% variable speed (for tuning recordings to the pianos) and other electronic tools. Still, the arranging work is still the same, manually punching holes (with an overlap up to 128th of a note) and trying the work-in-progress on the player piano immediately, while the ideas are fresh in my mind. There is no need to seek out a pianist to perceive the musical results!

I’ve noticed that your rolls have a unique, and in my opinion, very effective and almost “orchestral” sound. What do you think makes your rolls special?

My rolls aren’t really “orchestrated” in the true sense of the word, nor are they four-hand arrangements for a piano keyboard either. I call what I developed “interpretive arranging,” which means that the perforated ARTCRAFT roll is not being palmed off as an “artist recording,” though many have been played as a “performance alternative” on the concert stage, side-by-side with the virtuoso pianists who inspired the perforated equivalent. “Interpretive arranging” also approaches the player roll as something apart from keyboard playing and its notation system, which continues to hamstring pianola performances to this day, due to the old transcription methods still being used.

Rolls made from keyboard playing are not satisfactory and never sound like the alleged artists. Again, it would take many pages of space to explain why this is so. The so-called “hand-played” rolls, as opposed to music rolls which admit to being “arrangements,” that is to say, cut without the need of a keyboard artist, were made by music roll artisans who arranged the music, rarely even trying to imitate the striking, staccato, or thematic effects of the pianist whose name was stamped on the roll labels. They were called “Editors,” a false term since if one controls all elements of a mechanical music performance, there is no pianist in the equation! Generally speaking, “hand-played” rolls fall into several categories: (a) ratty, erratic rolls that were made from marking methods, during a live keyboard performance: German Welte-Mignon (T-100), early Duo-Art rolls in the #1500 and #5500 series, and QRS-Autograph rolls were all of this genre; (b) mathematically-made rolls, issued in the name of artists; and (c) “hand-played” on the labels of stock arrangements, previously sold as “arranged.” The music roll should be the entire focus and the pianist, real or a pseudonym, should be ignored.

You are of the opinion that after the late ‘Teens and early Twenties “hand-played rolls” were phased out, and yet the roll companies continued to use the phrase “played by so-and-so” on their advertising and labels. Why do you feel this happened? Do you have factual evidence to back up your opinion?

This is not an “opinion” – regarding the fact that rolls made from a hand-played source were phased out, beginning in the late ‘Teens – but is easy to prove by visual examination. Increasingly, music rolls with artists’ names attached to them were mathematically arranged, often with telltale “punch-skip-punch” graph paper characteristics of stepping. Similarly, perforations with the same notation time value would be homogeneous, one of the main reasons why so many commercial rolls become boring to the listener after a few seconds. It is the keyboard attack, the differences in striking – which would translate in the music roll medium into “variable length” perforations – that provide the recognizable characteristics of one accomplished pianist from another. The absence of incremental striking detail in commercial rolls gives them a mechanical, droning performance sound.

Genuine “hand-played” rolls were labor-intensive, and the rhythm within-the-measure was always flawed. The presence of jazz music and the desire to cut production costs led to the abandonment of marking or perforating rolls during a keyboard performance. The industry claims continued, however, since they sold pianos. Today, more is made about the purported artist than in the typical advertising campaign of the past, another example of revisionism. Most original player-piano and “Reproducing” Piano owners might have been attracted to the retailer by the false litany of recording artists, but once the mechanical piano was installed in the home, they purchased the rolls by title. I’m old enough to have known the first-time owners of these instruments, so I speak from experience on this point! Pianist Ernest Hutcheson summed it all up in a 1931 magazine editorial which said, “When the player piano tried to duplicate a concert pianist, it made a prostitute of itself.” The pianola is always best as an interpretive medium, manipulated by a musical human.

In your opinion, “arranged” rolls are better than “hand-played rolls.” Why?

As I said before, one should judge a roll on its own merits. Many of the so-called “hand-played” rolls have broken chords, sostenuto effects, and rubato in the arrangements; these might appeal to the interpreter – i.e., the pianolist – and again they might be difficult if not impossible to override, when performing the roll on a specific instrument. A good roll allows one to control all the interpretive elements without concessions, yet also permits the user to perform the arrangement with practically no lever manipulation. The paper travel speed of the arrangement plays an important factor here, as well as the “sweep” of the tempo lever design for a particular instrument. Short-travel levers cause problems with phrasing rolls requiring slower tempi. Long-travel levers make a fermata – or pause – difficult, especially for rolls that feature a series of them in between a return to the standard meter. As with keyboard playing, the pianola is the essence of musical compromise: the instrument, the roll with its arranged attributes and the intellect of the pianolist, the human being who controls the ultimate performance.

L. Douglas Henderson near his home in Maine, in 2018.

At this point it should be noted that even the electric “reproducing” piano is only semi-automatic. If for no other reason, the tempo must be monitored and recalibrated by the astute listener. Spool boxes did not have a capstan or a paper transport system which, unattended, could maintain a constant tempo. The diameter of the take-up spool also causes an unacceptable accelerando after several minutes’ time, often 25-33% depending upon the roll arrangement and the player action design. Naturally, the advertisements for the Ampico, Welte and Duo-Art expression players suggested that one could insert the roll and sit on the davenport, claiming that the customer would experience Hofmann or Paderewski performing on one’s own piano. (Sure.)

In short, I cut for the concept of the music, if and when the perforated roll can’t duplicate what a pianist might accomplish at the keyboard. If this means using more keys than a human could strike – albeit briefly, for musical emphasis – or the myriad of other characteristics of the music roll domain, then I’ll incorporate these into the master roll. Additional thematic material and variations which grow out of the “keyboard score” are other elements present in ARTCRAFT rolls. If one just quotes the score of the artist’s performance – via arranging – the roll is a distant second when compared to audio recordings. The perforated roll should give the pianolist the spirit of the music and then contribute something “more.” Generally speaking, I present the same material, via variable-length cutting, which the pianist executed, and then utilize the striking effects and create “pianola variations” which build a rousing climax.

True staccato, accurate jazz or swing rhythm (as opposed to the QRS tied-triplet substitute for dotted-8ths and 16ths), and sustaining pedal shadings (incorporated into the striking) are among the key elements in “interpretive arranging.” I always try to achieve a performance sparkle!

Do you have any closing thoughts on the world of mechanical music making?

Yes, the player piano (or pianola) and the expression player – the “Reproducing” Piano – should stop being presented as a…substitute for keyboard artists. It was never a record-playback instrument, as advertisers in the past falsely claimed…and the revisionists of today, for the sake or promoting audio recordings of old rolls, radio programs, and the bowdlerized recycling of rolls into the solenoid player medium, i.e., the MIDI computer-player actions added to acoustic pianofortes.

After attracting attention from Grieg, J.P. Johnson, Horowitz, Hofmann, and “the Ghost of Gershwin” (to quote a ubiquitous solenoid player promoter!), interest in mechanical music fades, once a new flock of customers discovers the false representations of famous pianists and/or the droning, boring player rolls originally sold in their names.

The theater organ, the Hammond organ, the synthesizer, the theremin, and other musical apparatus of recent vintage were at their musical zenith when being presented as instruments in their own right, and not as imitations of something else. Wurlitzer cinema organs were initially named “Unit-Orchestras” and while one could suspend judgment and imagine a symphonic ensemble when hearing one, the double-touch, percussion effects, and attributes of the instrument, under the talents of a human artist, were what made it memorable for the listener. Similarly, the theremin could approximate a cello solo or simulate the effect of the vox humana (human voice), but it remained for a virtuoso like Clara Rockmore to push it into its own unique musical sphere.

The player piano, be it electrically pumped or manually-pedaled, should be studied as its own entity, a musical instrument with some characteristics equal to those of the finest pianist, plus additional features which set it apart from everything else. The music rolls are the key to all performance improvements.

1 First published in The Mississippi Rag, October 1997, pp. 14 – 17

2 There is a video on YouTube which shows Douglas in action.

4 Lewis John Fuiks (1893 — 1962), used the stage name, Victor Arden


Debunking Piano Roll Mythology

i A more technical explanation can be found at the following website:

ii The first time I encountered anyone using the word “overdubbing” was in producer Andrew Kazdin’s liner notes for the 1976 LP edition of CBS Masterworks recording, “George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, The 1925 Piano Roll” (re-released on CBS CD MK 42240). However, thinking logically about what is discussed in this article, it is impossible not to concede that the whole idea is unrealistic at best, preposterous at worst.

iv Reported in a telephone conversation with Douglas on January 10, 2022.

Matthew de Lacey Davidson is a pianist and composer currently resident in Nova Scotia, Canada. His first CD, Space Shuffle and Other Futuristic Rags (Stomp Off Records), contained the first commercial recordings of the rags of Robin Frost. His second CD, The Graceful Ghost: Contemporary Piano Rags (Capstone Records), was the first commercial compact disc consisting solely of post-1960 contemporary piano ragtime, about which Gramophone magazine said, …a remarkably talented pianist…as a performer Davidson has few peers…”

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