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Shoot the Player Piano
Annie Gosfield
Annie Gosfield (Photo: Philip Blackburn)

Shoot the Player Piano
Video by Annie Gosfield. Music composed and performed by Annie Gosfield. Super 8 photography and invaluable assistance by Miriam Kolar. Avid editing by Chris Arnold at DCTV, New York. All mechanical Instruments were videotaped at the Nethercutt Collection, Sylmar, California, in March, 1999

Special Thanks To Philip Blackburn and the American Composers Forum, Byron Matson and the Nethercutt Collection, Miriam Kolar, Sara Roberts, and Cal Arts for technical assistance, and to LaDonna Smith, Eugene Chadbourne, Roger Kleier, Jens Cording, Janene Higgins, Chris Arnold, DCTV, and Phyllis and Eugene Gosfield.

Commissioned for the Sonic Circuits VII Electronic Music Festival and underwritten by the American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation.

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Document Annie Gosfield Interview
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Audio "Interview" (48:08s)

At the age of 14 my sense of harmony was changed forever after hearing a wildly out of tune calliope on a riverboat in New Orleans blast "Basin Street Blues" and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans". Shoot the Player Piano (The Treasures of San Sylmar) was inspired by this fascination with old mechanical instruments, and the odd, detuned sounds that they produce as they deteriorate. As time takes its toll on these great beasts, the tunings become increasingly random, pipes warp, hammers wear out, and tempos slip and slide as their timing mechanisms fluctuate. Familiar songs take on new life when performed by these contraptions, along with a homegrown microtonality and a uniquely inhuman sense of rhythm.

The function of mechanical instruments was largely utilitarian, designed to attract customers above the din of a carnival fairway, barroom, or riverboat, and to keep the money coming in, the liquor flowing, and people dancing. Timing mechanisms on nickelodeons were adjusted to play faster in order to bring in more nickels per hour. Although many composers' fascination with these instruments lies in their near-impossible precision and speed, my attraction to them lies in the other extremes of their inhuman qualities: the random rhythmic imperfections and strange tunings they attain after a life of service in a smoky barroom or a run-down riverboat.

Shoot the Player Piano is a work for an imaginary orchestra of aged and unusual mechanical instruments. The antique instruments that I videotaped for this project were so well-maintained they sounded as if they could have been manufactured yesterday. Because my original inspiration was the unpredictable quality of deteriorating instruments, I chose to compose the music with sounds drawn from outside sources. Using a combination of old and new recordings of calliopes, nickelodeons, German jahrmarkt organs and their interior bells and percussion, prepared piano, accordion, the violin of LaDonna Smith, the banjo of Eugene Chadbourne, and various machine sounds, I created a large library of samples and then detuned, altered, edited, and arranged these sounds. Almost all of the sounds that you hear did not come from the accompanying instruments on the screen (with the two exceptions: the sound of the paper roll turning, and the banjo tremolo). Video images include the instruments themselves, their inner machinery, and the exterior novelties designed to attract customers. Shoot the Player Piano starts with the quiet hum of these machines (their internal motors, the sound of a nickel dropping) and ends with a raucous collision of accordion, piano, violin, banjo, and calliope, striving to bridge the gap between the purely mechanical sounds of these musical machines, and the music made by these half-ton mechanical wonders.

The video was shot at The Nethercutt Collection, a museum of pneumatic instruments and antique cars in Sylmar, California, in a large complex known as "San Sylmar". Byron Matson, my gracious host, is the curator of the musical instruments, and is featured in this video.

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