Thursday, November 24, 2011

Automated music: the Phonola

Before the advent of the gramophone, tape recorder and mp3 player, inventors made constant attempts to develop automated musical instruments that could play pre-programmed music without the need for trained musicians. Barrel organs and music boxes had been around since the early 19th century, but these both required complicated systems of handmade metal pegs and levers, which were quite expensive and time consuming to make.

Eventually, a number of mass-produced paper roll systems were developed, where holes could be punched in various places to control the notes played on a piano. In the USA, the "pianola" or player piano used such rolls. In 1902, Ludwig Hupfeld unveiled a similar system in Leipzig, Germany, which he called the "Phonola".

Ringve Museum has a phonola from 1917 which it uses for demonstrating automated music rolls. Unfortunately, one of the problems of demonstrating with original instruments is that things break. Especially things that are close to a hundred years old. The video above shows the Norwegian conservator Jan Petter Brennsund studying and repairing the phonola's bellows system, which had developed holes in its rubberised fabric. The repair reveals a dilemma shared by Ringve and many other museums: Should the museum keep this object as a passive exhibit in order to better preserve it for the future, or do musical performances provide such educational and aesthetic value that some damage occurred through use is warranted?

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