Recent Drawings by George Gershwin, 2011

The player pianos in old western movies were hardy and inelegant. Shown scrolling punched paper rolls through their mechanisms, they automatically plunked out popular melodies for the saloon patrons. By the early 1900s however, player pianos had evolved into quite sophisticated instruments. The reproducing piano played rolls that recorded,  not simply the sequence of notes required to render a musical composition, but the actual physical movement of the pianist as he or she performed. As a result, and as intangible as it may be, what we hear from a reproducing piano is not a sound recording, but a replaying of the original performance with all of the expression and timing of the featured pianist. In an effort to produce the best quality sound possible, the developers of this technology inadvertently preserved the physical essence of the greatest composers and performers of the day, including: Gustav Mahler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy and George Gershwin.

Working with a piano restoration expert in Ottawa, I investigated how the reproducing technology might allow the pianists themselves to make drawings. The method developed was simple: attach pens to the vacuum and pump mechanisms in the piano that recreated the expression and pedal work of the pianist. I then held paper against the pens while the piano played. The title of each drawing identifies the pianist, the title of the musical composition and what expressive element within the composition generated the artwork.

From 1915-27 George Gershwin performed many of his own composition in the creation of Duo-Art piano rolls for the Aeolian Company of New York. Feeding Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, So Am I, and Swanee rolls into a Duo-Art/Steinway & Sons piano brought the instrument to life and caused the pens to darted about the paper with great vigor. The result is a series of small, enigmatic line drawings that were created, remarkably, by the hand of George Gershwin himself.

The right hand of George Gershwin playing So Am I

The right hand of George Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue, pt.2

The left hand of George Gershwin playing Swanee

The left hand of George Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue, pt.1