At the entrance, my friends and I were immediately welcomed by an aged lady with a warm smile. As we opened the door to the main exhibition area, we found ourselves in a small yet intimate setting decorated in a 1900-ish fashion.
The Museum features player pianos (i.e. pianolas) from its most rudimentary form to reproducing pianos, together with a large collection of piano rolls. There were, in fact, not too many displays, but it was the guided tour that left a deep impression on us. The demonstrator, who genuinely loves what he is doing and sharing, concisely explained to us the history of the Museum and piano roll recording, and its basic mechanism.
Before the emergence of digital recording, player pianos were invented around 1900. A piano roll (which is played on a player piano) is a roll of paper with perforations, encoding notes and note length. At a later stage of development, dynamics were also encoded by holes on the periphery of the rolls, allowing a more musical and “accurate” performance. For a more comprehensive introduction to piano rolls, I shall leave it to you to visit the Museum yourself.
To begin with the demonstration, the guide illustrated the working principle of player pianos with a relatively primitive model as below. So basically what you have to do to operate the player piano is to: insert the piano roll, select the indicated tempo and step on the pedals (and adjust the hand controls if necessary).
There were, of course, more advanced and automated models – insert the piano roll, turn on the power source and you’re done.
Knowing that we are piano lovers, the demonstrator kindly offered us the chance to choose the piece to be performed. As a Scriabin fanatic and with the knowledge that Scriabin himself had made several piano roll recordings, I also asked if they had any recording by Scriabin. Despite several failed attempts, the demonstrator and his very helpful colleagues still insisted on searching for the recordings (for us!) and eventually found one, in which Scriabin played his own Preludes Op.22 – as if in front of us!
As I was leaving the Museum, I wondered – who would have imagined such an experience (complemented by the accommodating staff) with its unprepossessing façade? So next time when you travel to Amsterdam, consider sparing an hour or so to visit the Pianola Museum, which I could assure you a fruitful experience.
For more information, please visit: https://www.pianola.nl/Pianola_Museum/Welcome.html (and pay attention to their opening hours!)
N.B. This is not an advertisement. I wrote this article simply out of appreciation towards the Museum and the wonderful staff there.
P.S. The guide jokingly said the Scriabin recording was “specially for Hong Kong” – may I dedicate this article specially to the staff.