The heyday of the home player piano in America lasted until the Great Depression, when the mechanical piano lost the popular culture race to a miraculous invention called "the radio." A western New York firm, QRS Music in Buffalo, was a big source for the rolls that Victorian families would feed into their player pianos.
Despite the setback wrought by radio, QRS kept innovating. Their new line of work is automation for digital self-playing pianos, the kind more often found in shopping malls than living rooms. QRS now makes downloadable sheet music for the piano.
But, each year, the company produces one paper roll at Christmastime, which they send to households around the country that still own the old instruments. This winter, the 11th year of the Christmas roll tradition, QRS has produced four songs from the classic soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
For QRS's longtime music director, Bob Berkman, the Christmas roll isn't just about nostalgia - it's a challenge. The old player pianos, which have a variety of volume and pacing controls, actually require some skill and familiarity with the instrument to sound their best.
Berkman says the digital player pianos that QRS makes today lack some of the soul of the old roll-driven pianos.
"It’s not a participatory thing. I think it's a great product - and we’ve made it a great product ... musically. But it’s a different product. You can turn it on and play for an hour. Whereas rolls, you’re ... involved. That’s the difference.”
Berkman is a fan of the old technology and is working to preserve the rolls, by creating a permanent archive to prevent them from deteriorating. That's important, because while a midi player might be able to read and play back the notes, Berkman maintains the music still becomes un-interpretable, losing something integral to the form.
“You scan it and you get this sterile document. Even if you get it right and store it in another medium, if it’s not a medium that you can put on a pneumatically operated player piano and play it back, it’s - well something’s gone.”
Berkman's also bringing that preservationist instinct to bear on non-Christmas music. He owns what's most likely the world's largest collection of Jewish piano rolls. Below, a popular klezmer tune, "Der Hazer Bulgar," or "The Hot Bulgar."
And for NPR fanatics, enjoy the theme to Fresh Air: