A piece of musical history - or should history repeat itself
by Neville Davies
Spellbound - Vol IV Iss III
© September 1999

A little piece of musical history turned up in a parcel from America a week or so back. It appeared in the form of a tape cassette with a note stuck on it as follows: "Kristin was given this tape. It wasn't her 'thing' so she thought you might like it."

In fact, I do quite like it, but perhaps more for its historical value than for its musical value. You see, the tape consisted of recorded music of George Gershwin, commencing with a piano performance of the famous "Rhapsody in Blue." Well, recordings of "Rhapsody in Blue" or any of the other Gershwin compositions on the tape are hardly in the rare or endangered species lists, so what's so special about this? Admittedly, most of them are orchestral renditions and this one is just one piano. And (here we start on the history bit), this piano was actually played by George Gershwin himself. "So what!" you say, "the technology was available to record Gershwin rattling the keys even if he did die in 1937." True, but these sounds straight from the strings of the piano were recorded much more recently than 1937. So, how did George manage to stay in the act?

The tape was produced by the Musical Heritage Society, using a very special player piano interpreting piano rolls cut by performances by Gershwin and other contemporary pianists about 1930. You know, those paper rolls with patterns of little holes punched through them that people with no keyboard skills at all were able to run through a pianola and evoke note perfect piano renditions from the strings. Well, these rolls used by the Musical Heritage Society are somewhat like this, but with a few important additional features. These special ones not only hold a record of which and when each piano key was pressed down, but also, on additional tracks of punched holes, have a record of the way in which they were pressed. Thus, the musical dynamics used by the very touch of the original pianist is immortalised in the roll, and his particular performance when the roll was cut is reproduced exactly each time the roll is played through the appropriate mechanical piano.

A few years ago, I visited the home, in the Sydney suburb of Newtown, of a collector of mechanical pianos and piano rolls, and, there, witnessed a fascinating demonstration of highlights of his valuable collection. The house contains a large roomful of mechanical pianos and several rooms storing hundreds and hundreds of piano rolls. We guests were treated to performances by a wide range of pianists including, not only George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, and Duke Ellington, but also such notable concert pianists as Paderewski, Rachmaninov, and even Franz Liszt. It was a stimulating and quite eerie experience to watch the piano keys moving up and down at the command of these long-dead performers, as if their unseen ghostly hands were there wavering above and about the keyboard.

From all this, it is obvious that pianists must have been recording performances in the form of piano rolls well back in musical recording history and even before Thomas Edison was quoting "Mary had a little lamb" down the spout of that gadget he called a phonograph. So, as well as being a piece of music history, this little tape which isn't Kristin's thing contributes some significant insight into the history of recording music.

However, my experience of lying on my bed listening to this tape playing through my headphones has evoked further thoughts about Gershwin and his music, particularly this now-long-accepted classic, "Rhapsody in Blue." Gershwin was not a classical composer, not originally anyway. He was a popular song writer, just like John Lennon, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Iva Davies, Neil Finn, and hundreds of others that have been churning out tunes for publication through all sorts of media during this near-finished century. It is just that his songwriting was confined to an earlier part of the century than the other names I mention. But, listening to his piano performance of "Rhapsody in Blue," one can appreciate how he graduated to classical musician status before his all-too-short life ended. Just picture a pop song writer tinkling away at the keys, trying out snatches of melody and themes, probably just as he has done many times before, seeking a melody for a song. Gradually the bits and pieces and experiments start to coalesce sufficiently for it to seem that a significant piece of music is emerging. That's a starting point for something more than just another song, and from that point the experimental tinkling goes on, working in the same idiom until it becomes a major work suitable for full orchestral performance. For the next phase, Gershwin required some outside help in that his knowledge and experience of musical instruments did not extend much beyond the piano. Ferde Grofe had to be called upon to orchestrate "Rhapsody in Blue" and thereby establish it as the credible classical composition enjoyed by subsequent generations of music lovers.

So, this leads me to my concluding thought arising from this experience of Kristin's "not my thing" tape. With all these other popular musicians which the twentieth century has produced, should there not be a lot more cases of major classical compositions finding their genesis in popular music genres? Could not one of these musicians do for, say, punk rock, what Gershwin, in his rhapsody, did for blues? There must be thousands and thousands of near-forgotten pieces of popular music from the 1900s, much of it justly forgettable perhaps, but a great deal of it really worthy of a place in prosperity. I wonder if, in the next century, we should add these worthy pieces of music to the growing list of things to be re-cycled, perhaps in the sort of form I have just been raving on about. Take Icehouse, for instance. Do you think they could come up with a "Can't Help Myself Concerto"? Or what about "The Sidewalk Symphony"? Just imagine an Adagio movement built around that haunting theme of "Don't Believe Anymore."

But, hang on, Old Fellow. Maybe old age is catching up on you a bit. Isn't this all starting to get rather ridiculous?

Or is it?

Anyway, it all goes to show what can come out of a little tape cassette that wasn't somebody else's "thing"!


Your housework for the next issue will be as follows:
1. Read the article "A Piece of Musical History or Should History Repeat Itself" by Neville Davies.
2. Ponder for some minutes about what the article says.
3. Study the Icehouse discography and make your selection of the piece or pieces of Icehouse music which you consider would be the most suitable basis for a major orchestral work in classical format.
4. Write a brief essay presenting and justifying your selection under 3. above and outlining the form you think the resultant classical work should take.

The prize for best entry will be an advance order for an autographed copy of the CD of the first recorded performance of the major classical work originating from your selection.

Note 1: The "Can't Help Myself Concerto" and "The Sidewalk Symphony" will not be accepted as valid suggestions for the purpose of this exercise.
Note 2: No prize will be awarded for naming the person or persons responsible for this homework suggestion.