Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Modern Spin

"A number of magazines devoted to the player--many of them put out by the manufacturers themselves--were stolidly enough written to convince any player owner that his was the most important instrument in the history of music and that he was its master (Gaddis 2)."

This quote is from William Gaddis, an excerpt from "Stop Player. Joke No. 4," a brief essay on the history of the player piano. While the piece was published in 1951, I cannot help but think how it could also apply to the video games Rock Band and Guitar Hero. More specifically, if he were alive today, would Gaddis see a possible connection? I can't think of a stronger way to ask that question, a way that wouldn't sound like an elementary school textbook (remember questions like "What would George Washington say about democracy today?").

"Although Gaddis had kept perhaps one hundred pages from earlier drafts and he anticipated (at this stage) a finished work approaching fifty thousand words...brief though it is, the essay is complete and it stands as the closest indication of what he had in mind for the player piano project (Tabbi 6)."

In his excellent notes on Gaddis's essay collection The Rush For Second Place, Joseph Tabbi mentions Gaddis's major unrealized project, a (social and chronological) history of the player piano, namely how technology helps or impedes the arts. While the available analyses don't seem to offer any explicit opinions, a reader wouldn't be faulted for guessing that Gaddis believed that the player piano impeded creativity rather than helped it. With the music rolls, the user of a player piano needed no musical knowledge or training, but could appear to be a classically trained pianist.

The connection to the video games came about after seeing Rock Band played at a party a few weeks ago and reading quotes in Entertainment Weekly both praising and criticizing its popularity. (A brief note on EW: If you follow this blog, you may have noticed two or three previous references to this publication. My sister-in-law has a subscription to it, and I tend do do a lot of deep thinking in the bathroom with back issues on hand.) On one hand, the games are fun at parties, especially after a few beers. Plus there are indications that they might steer people to actually learning musical instruments. On the other hand, some (children) might be led to believe that playing music is nothing more than pushing synchronized buttons.

While the games are wildly popular, there's no real reason to fear that they will overtake actual bands and instruments in popularity. When the player piano was in its prime, that idea was a definite possibility. Consider these notes compiled by Gaddis:
1.) "Their piano praised by: His Holiness Pope Pius X, the Sultan of Turkey, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Bros., Prince Tadashigo Shimedsu--and installed on 32 battleships (162)."
2.) "Decade 1900-10, rate of pianos increases 6.2 times that of human beings (163)."
3.) "As for the ultimate consumer of all this musical feast, the American music lover, he ate it up and cried for more. No longer did he have to exert himself even to the extent of pumping pedals or pushing levers. An electric motor now reduced his chores to zero. He merely sat back, relaxed, and dreamed, while his piano, entirely on its own, delivered performances by the giants of the keyboard, from Pachmann and Godowsky to Vincent Lopez, right in his own living room. No czar, sultan, or begum could command more [clipping] (165)."

Then again, what's to say that two current video games couldn't start such a revolution? There are websites that allow users to create songs with just a few mouse clicks. In the early 20th century, entertainment options were limited, so a novelty like the player piano could easily create a diversion monopoly. Today, music and games are just a fraction of the available hobbies and entertainments. Getting back to my original question, what would Gaddis say about something like Rock Band?

My guess is that the argument would be the same--entertainment and karaoke stylings are fine, but people need to remember that the notes and songs being reproduced electronically needed to be created in the first place. A video game can never supplant a live show, just as a book with novel-writing tips and "formulas" can never be a substitute for an idea and creativity. William Gaddis and Marshall McLuhan were two authorities on communications and technologies, yet it's fascinating how different their personalities appeared on paper. McLuhan seemed to be full of excitement and optimism, whereas Gaddis (to paraphrase Franzen) seemed to grow more bitter as he got older. One can only imagine how angry his player piano opus would have been. The notes left behind really seem to be the forming of a mental eruption.

Work Cited:
Gaddis, William. The Rush For Second Place. Copyright 2002 by the Estate of William Gaddis. Introduction and notes copyright 2002 by Joseph Tabbi.

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