ARTCRAFT Newsletter - #1 (May 21, 2000)

                                from L. Douglas Henderson - of ARTCRAFT Rolls

    Thank you for subscribing to this newsletter, which will probably 'evolve' as I get a feel for the readership, and especially if the subscribers 'double' within the next month or two. (That will merit having a Microsoft 'upgrade' which allows for more message space PLUS eliminates the banner advertisements.)


    As I'm writing this for the new collector, the advanced Pianola enthusiast and also the public at large, I might mention a few things which relate to the 'MARQUE AMPICO' text, below.

    "Danilo Konvalinka" co-founded The Musical Wonder House with me and his wife Lois - who shares this residence around the corner; the museum reopens on Memorial Day weekend for its 37th Season. The "reproducing" piano is the old industry term for an expression player; generally, these were electrically pumped, and the dynamics are controlled by marginal perforations on the music rolls. Many "reproducing" rolls were retrofitted from existing standard player roll Masters, referred to as "88-Note rolls" in my texts. "Reproducing" actions usually played between 80 and 82 keys of the piano, though some brands, like the QRS-Recordo arrangements, encompassed the entire 88 notes of the instrument. The Ampico expression player was made in a series of different designs, the most popular being the A-model and the unusual series being the B-model grand pianos, introduced in 1929; the musical intensities were the same, but the crescendo systems - and their speeds - were different, while the B had only 1 such mechanism for the entire piano along with no manual controls. (It was essentially a roll playback unit, designed in the twilight years of the Pianola era.) "Charles Fuller Stoddard" was the Ampico developer, though many people believe - as do I - that L. B. Doman of the Amphion company designed and built many of the actions through the A period. "Rythmodik" rolls were the syrupy artificially-sustained rolls made when Stoddard, Kohler's Autopiano and a host of interlocking companies produced 88-Note and Ampico rolls - primarily in Belleville, NJ; the classical arrangements in this 'style' bear little or resemblance to artistic piano playing, but possess an organ-like approach to the piano keyboard.

    You should now be up-to-date with those who have been involved with rolls, or my activities, for decades! (If not, write me at and I'll try to answer any questions or terms not covered in today's newsletter.)


    We have added a 'link' URL which contains a text and two photographs of an ARTCRAFT Master Roll. You can see visually why our arrangements have an effervescent snap to them, a performance panache which makes them different from anything else in the field. It's all in the cutting of the Master arrangement, since the duplicate copies have new cross-bridging which eliminates one seeing the "overlap" methods - developed by Mr. Henderson in the 'Fifties.

    The examples show CLEOPATRA RAG by Joseph Lamb, in a 4-hand arrangement based on a phonograph recording of the 'Seventies. Look carefully at the close-up view - the second picture - for this shows how precisely the "striking effects" are built into ARTCRAFT Rolls. Whether it's 88-Note or a "reproducing" roll, everything exciting begins with the note-score, that is, the musical arrangement ... a perforated performance.

    Check out this illustrated Webpage:

    (The 2 .jpg photos make this a rather slow download, but if you enjoy looking at Pianola rolls, it should be worth the time.)


    Since this first newsletter is being launched before getting the latest information from the Malones (Play-Rite) in California, I might send out a "postscript" E-Mail follow-up - if there's something concrete to announce. We hope to have our brand-new releases within the next couple of weeks ... and we also don't know what the new prices will be, either.

    Those who have subscribed to this newsletter will have the final opportunity to purchase ARTCRAFT Rolls at the 1999 prices, which haven't changed in about 5 years' time ... in spite of paper and shipping costs increasing.

    We also might mention that our supply of Word Rolls is diminishing, and that all such rolls will be 'instrumental' in the near future - supplied with extra stamped-on 'cues' for song sheets, to be enclosed with the 88-Note rolls in this style. If you have ever wanted THE PREACHER AND THE BEAR or THE BACK BAY POLKA (Gershwin's little-known comic song about prudes!), etc., this is the time to consider a purchase from the remaining stock. The '97 fire at the California plant destroyed the stencil imprinting equipment, and it won't be replaced.


    Back in the early 'Fifties, I passed up any number of perfect condition Wm. Knabe Ampico grands (A-model) - due to their roll libraries and also the paucity of manual controls when compared to other 'reproducing' pianos. At the time these 'mint' operating instruments were about $1100, keeping in mind that the money had greater value in those days. By the early 'Sixties - now residing in the Washington-Baltimore area - I looked at several $1500 Mason & Hamlin grands, the 6'6" 'Colonial' style - usually with the Favorite Fifty as the sole roll collection; these instruments were excellent as pianos - but ... even though playing with wheezy expression, I just couldn't take the plunge and purchase something which wasn't Pianolist-friendly - i.e. designed for music roll interpretation.

    After those "look but don't buy" experiences, I finally had a string of electric Ampico uprights, the last being a J. C. Fischer Baby Ampico (bungalow upright) with a fine tone. This particular instrument provided the musical texture when refreshments were served during the celebrated Candlelight Concerts, an evening feature at our museum - The Musical Wonder House - for many years. The Fischer was also played by hand, extensively, by one of the resident musicians - particularly Theresa Maetz, Danilo Konvalinka's aunt ... who had a long music career in Austria, before coming to the States in her later years.

    Eventually, it dawned upon me that what was really needed for creating some new ARTCRAFT Ampico rolls was the pedal-operated upright model, named the 'Marque Ampico'. After a search for a specific version of this foot powered 'reproducing' piano, one was located in the hills of New Hampshire ... and with the aid of a loyal New Jersey roll customer, was brought to Kennebunk, Maine where Bob Hunt rebuilt it completely. During Fall of 1999, the restored 1926 Brewster was delivered to my heated/dehumidified roll storage building ... but it wasn't until Spring of 2000 before I really got to put it through its paces.

    The Brewster player is fantastic with 88-Note rolls, especially ARTCRAFT Interpretive Arrangements ... and its ability to separate dotted 8th and 16th notes, merely by "pedal touch" puts it on par with the Simplex, Aeolian and other responsive player actions. As an Ampico, playing ARTCRAFT Rolls, it does all that an electric player could accomplish, albeit a few shades below that of a skilled Pianolist, due to the "lock-and-cancel intensity" designs which are admittedly slower than one's contact with the music roll performance on a 'direct' basis. The crescendo features - more of a radio dial effect than a musical tool (as it is on the Welte-Mignon) - worked splendidly, giving one the fast or slow dynamic increases when scored by the music roll perforations. In fact, so good is the pedal Ampico that I often "took notes" while pedaling, since if one of three 'pressure levels' is maintained (by 'feel' and verified by a slow-moving gauge), the instrument requires no musical knowledge in order to perform with the Ampico expression system in control.

    Up until this afternoon, I played ARTCRAFT arrangements only ... even declining some old Ampico rolls at Bob Hunt's residence, prior to the delivery of the piano. Most of the original Ampico library is affected, musically, and doesn't rise to the challenges of the player action or the intensity possibilities of the expression mechanisms. (If you doubt my words, play CLEOPATRA RAG - an '88 Ampico release made for a West Coast player club convention, and now to be re-released as an ARTCRAFT selection. Just that single roll demonstrates the litany of missed musical opportunities inherent in the old library for this 'reproducing' instrument.)

    Today, I played some original Ampico rolls for the first time ... and these are my impressions, some of which might help you to decide what rolls to purchase or 'avoid' on auctions or via music roll dealers:

COUNTRY GARDENS -Percy Grainger- #60401 "played by Henry Souvaine"

    What a stinker this roll is! It's so bad that I played it twice with the Ampico on and once with the expression off, treating it as a standard 88-Note roll. The erratic, clumpy striking - not the "spritely staccato" as one would expect with this music - was further exaggerated by erratic tempi, no doubt having been ARRANGED FROM a 'hand-played' source. With the Ampico off, it was difficult to make the melody "sing" since the unit valves are so responsive that when pedaling in rhythm, many of the accents came "just before" or "just after" the theme was to speak. I kept thinking of old animated 'barnyard' cartoons by Van Buren or Walter Lantz, featuring horses and cows dancing to some 'rube' music. If ever Grainger's composition were converted into a musical "cartoon", this is the roll ... and it's a dog even when played without the expression system;

C#-MINOR WALTZ, Op. 64, No. #2 -Frederic Chopin- #55184 "played by Leo Ornstein"

    This 'hammy' roll sounds like an organist on a piano keyboard, and the waltz beat is totally lost in the process!  It has been about 15 years since I've played a commercial arrangement of Chopin's music - in the Rythmodik arranging style - but this has to be one of the worst releases, ever, for the Ampico player. Mercifully, the roll was torn so the performance was interrupted ... and it was no musical loss for this writer!

CHANT POLONAISE, Op. 74, No. 5 -Chopin-Liszt- #64051 "played by Leopold Godowsky"

    Expressive, light, airy, melodic ... a welcome relief after the fare played above, but -- any half-baked Pianolist could "read the roll" and bring out the singing melody, since it's slow and simple, with plenty of space between each element of the "Polish song" upon which this piano solo was based. I tried it with the Ampico on, then off; not much difference, since it was pretty ... but not a musical challenge. If you desire a lyric arrangement which floats along in a lush texture - yet doesn't make 'waves' in the process - you might consider this 'reproducing' roll for your player;

POLONAISE IN A-FLAT, Op. 53 -Chopin- #56336 "Played by Leopold Godowsky"

    Not bad ... definitely expressive. The Rythmodik sostenuto blurs many of the faster passages, but for a commercial Ampico roll this isn't a poor arrangement - definitely a 'keeper' for something exciting from the original library. Unfortunately, it has that "smeared" effect of too many adjacent keys being pressed down, and something of that sort involving an 'orchestral' style crescendo for the bravura passages. All told, it's a twitchy arrangement but one of the better vintage releases for the instrument. (This roll is still not equal to my old Artur Rubinstein 78/45 rpm recording of the late 'Forties, in my opinion.)

POLONAISE IN A-FLAT, Op. 53 -Chopin- #69833 "Played by Josef Lhévinne"

    Here's a B-Ampico roll, which means the extra holes to control the electric rotary pump's vacuum - not needed on the foot-impelled Brewster - and which also features "duplexed" crescendo holes, since the player grand piano had only one for the two halves of the scale. The staccato is superior on this late roll, which is pretty much the "same" in the automatic dynamic ranges, but the highspeed bass octave figuration accents a little better than did the FAKE-Godowsky roll, described above. Why? It's not due to the B arrangement (on a A-series upright with dual crescendo simulations), nor the alleged artist at the keyboard. The reason why the first note rises above the others in that repeating bass pattern is due to the placement of the #6 (M.F.) holes in relation to the paper travel speed and the #7 cancel holes ... giving a "whump" - "da-da-da" effect.

    (The Duo-Art Themodist can really bring out this kind of accent while floating the Accompaniment for the other 3 notes, but that means you'd have to purchase another piano. The Brewster can equal the Duo-Art in this regard with the Ampico turned off. I found that I liked this arrangement best when using the Ampico for 80% of the entire composition, while turning off the expression system during the "bass figuration" passages. Thus, I played this FAKE-Lhévinne roll as a 'reproducing' arrangement UNTIL the staccato bass patterns arrived - which introduce a memorable sustained melody in the middle of the scale; at that point, it was a cinch to reach inside the spoolbox, kill the Ampico system and take over as if this were an 88-Note roll ... each time returning to the 'reproducing' score once the challenging section had been played.)

    The two POLONAISE IN A-FLAT rolls are interesting to play back-to-back, not as examples of two pianists with different approaches, but to show how the "note score" is really more important than the expression system ever is - on any brand of 'reproducing' player. Both had a "crescendo smear" which was totally unlike ANY pianist on the fast arpeggios, and the FAKE-Godowsky roll blurred the single-note melody which wanders in the treble prior to the final reprise of the first theme, before to the Coda.  I recommend these rolls for any player piano - Ampico included - as they illustrate how important the arrangement is ... while demonstrating that many of the performance techniques have nothing to do with keyboard playing. Given a choice, I'd take the FAKE-Hofmann version for the Duo-Art, one of W. Creary Woods' better arrangements; it has the panache, the pedal effects and the solo accents which make this one of the better 'reproducing' arrangements by Aeolian. You can, of course, play the Duo-Art "Hofmann" version on any player instrument, simply by taping over the top/bottom 4 holes, using today's 3-M 'Magic Plus' removable tape.

    [I've played Ampico, Welte and just about anything on my electric Duo-Art players, dating back to the mid-'Fifties, so don't let the absence of a 'reproducing' piano stop you from purchasing and enjoying these 3 POLONAISE IN A-FLAT versions. If you buy just one, get the "played by Josef Hofmann" edition, which is Woods at his best.]

    To cap off my personal musicale for the afternoon, guess what the encore was for today? A QRS roll - #2719 - from 1924 entitled JEALOUS Fox Trot, written by Jack Little and "played by Victor Arden" (a.k.a. Lewis Fuiks) ... and it was obviously a Max Kortlander arrangement.

    Now, I relished steady meter - something absent from the erratic Ampico rolls, above - and the unit valve Amphion player action responded to my slightest whim. The Tempo 75 arrangement (which was "tighter" than the Tempo 95 rolls, approximately, by Ampico) still gave me the opportunity to separate the 16ths from the dotted 8ths and pull out the first beat in highspeed triplets. This was due to the staccato cutting (almost up to ARTCRAFT standards, but not quite!) and the perfect meter of the Kortlander arrangement. JEALOUS is one of those churned-out-by-the-yard (meaning forgettable) 'Twenties dance numbers, but the arrangement was effervescent, sparkling with minor variations from beginning to end. There was just enough sustaining effect to use the roll with or without the automatic pedal.

    This QRS Roll was made during that period of 5-7 years when Max Kortlander seems to be working with 'reproducing' rolls more than doing 88-Note arrangements in his name (as well as pseudonyms or "real people" like Pete Wendling). At that time the Artecho/Apollo 'reproducing' rolls as well as QRS-Recordo lines were being made, with the Angelus (Artrio) series being added in 1926. Creating a bouncy arrangement appears to be the norm with his craft of that period, since the master would probably be issued in a variety of formats. This is apart from the plodding 88-Note rolls - not destined for multiplexing - which were often the work of J. Lawrence Cook, beginning his droning rolls at that time.

    It wouldn't surprise me if JEALOUS turned up as a "QRS Concert Series" roll in those days ... as well as a Recordo or Artecho release. For those who study roll arrangements, QRS had a better-than-average limited line of popular and Salon music going (for 88-Note players) as well as the "usual fare" which showed practically no musical inventiveness - in those days of early radio coming into the parlour. The flourish at the end of the roll is a snappier variation of what Max called "the Wendling style" when I worked briefly at Imperial Industrial Co. (QRS) in the Bronx. If that Coda didn't say "Max not Victor (or Lew, as Phil Ohman called him)" I don't know what does.

    Charles Fuller Stoddard would probably not be happy to learn that an exciting QRS Roll concluded my personal recital. It was a breath of fresh air after all that artistic 'ham' ... and ... the Amphion action followed musical orders without any trouble. There's nothing like a unit valve player - if properly restored - performing rolls with strict meter (under control of the Pianolist). There's nothing so irritating as playing this kind of action with ratty, erratic rolls, for the pedal accents are often "mis-timed" due to arranging irregularities WITHIN THE MUSICAL MEASURE, where stability should reign.

    The Brewster is the best Ampico I've ever owned - as a player. Sure wish that those grands in the 'Fifties and 'Sixties, described above, had foot pedals and the manual controls featured on this amazing and highly responsive upright! It will be my reference instrument for more ARTCRAFT Ampico rolls, starting next month.

Douglas Henderson - Boothbay, Maine (5-20-2000)
ARTCRAFT Music Rolls
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PS: As soon as we get the Y2K music roll releases "out", then work can begin on some new arrangements. We welcome your suggestions for new releases ... pieces that will be as interesting to play tomorrow as they are today, music that suits the instrumental Player-Piano. - LDH

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