September 7 Readings - Gitelman

Lisa Gitelman is an associate professor of departments of English and Media, Culture, and Communication at Steinhardt School of New York University. Her areas of research are: media history, American print culture, new media in historical context, and techniques of inscription.
“She holds a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University and is a former editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University. She joins Steinhardt after teaching at Harvard University and at The Catholic University of America.”1

Through her academic career Ms. Gitelman have held numerous fellowships, includings Fellowship from University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Study.

The subjects of the Gitelman’s article are well defined by its title: “Media, Materiality, and the measure of digital, or the case of sheet music and the problem of piano rolls”.
Herewith, she mentions that the purpose of the essay is “to give a glimpse of slipperiness in ” materiality “ itself by looking at a specific moment of media transition, when things seemed particularly contingent”2.

Focusing on the emergence of the new type of media in 1900-ths, Ms. Gitelman is discussing different aspects of that phenomenon. They are: public music practices and habits in 1900-ths, copyright controversies, social and historical significance of the appearance of the new type of musical representation (i.e. piano rolls), piano and music market conditions and its dependence on the proper legal practices and definitions, historical comparison of the old and new media, and concept of newness of the “new media” in any age, democratization of music vs. lack of the musical literacy, controversial distinction between the high- and low- grade pianos, and lack of understanding of the musical taste as an accomplishment, and “accumulated cultural capital”3.

The copyright controversy is a significant point of Ms. Gitelman. From her writing it becomes evident, that the more media changes and transforms throughout the history, the more apparent becomes the slipperiness of the material meanings, its legal definitions, and related practices. Thus, in a course of centuries the paper played the crucial role in representing the information in human society. Therefore, the appearance of the paper-made piano rolls in 1900-ths was a good reason for John Philip Sousa, the American composer and bandleader, to raise a question of a copyright violation by piano rolls producers. He expected the law system to recognize his exclusive right not only on the “tangible expressions4 for his mind conceptions, but also “he wanted the abstract ‘musical thought’… to be his property, because that musical thought was ‘conceived’ by him”5. It is noteworthy that phonograph recordings of the time, while causing similar problems to music publishers and composers, were not subject to lawsuits. What is it, we may wonder, that made piano rolls so objectionable to sheet music publishers?

Gitelman's historical analysis shows that these piano rolls were advertised somewhat creatively. Trade magazine advertisements emphasized the "artistic or musical over the mechanical" nature of the perforated rolls.6 While player pianos did not require sheet music literacy from their users, some did require what Gitelman calls "paraliteracies" for operation. Some piano rolls included instructions that suggested the use of pedals…knobs…speed pointers…and loud buttons" in addition to merely setting the roll in the holes and pressing play.7 We might compare this to hip-hop DJs in the late 70s and early 80s. This is a group a disputed musicians whose content was merely the creative playing of mechanically reproduced music: records.

In addition, Lisa Gitelman provides insights about similarities between the earlier music media (i.e.piano rolls and music sheets) in their relation to the mechanical parts of the musical representation (i.e. pianos) and its analogs (i.e. programs and computers) appeared in digital era. Thus, she suggest to think of it in terms of software and hardware8, respectively applied to piano-rolls, music sheets and piano instruments.

The measure of digital in piano rolls (i.e. perforated paper), may be defined by one’s ability to recognize the presence of the “indexical relationship9 of the holes in the paper to the 84 keys of piano. If there was indeed a one-to-one relationship, then this index made piano rolls more of an analog to sheet music, and therefore a mere copy of that sheet music. However, if the holes in the paper were merely an "arbitrary machine code" instructing the piano to strike certain keys, then it would seem to be a digital technology. Although courts did not use the terms analog/digital at the time, the cases brought against piano rolls essentially debated the status of this new technology as analog or digital. Gitelman argues that piano rolls were indeed the early predecessors of the perforated machine-readable cards, and latest digital media such as floppy diskettes, compact discs, and flash drives. Like those later "new media" software, piano rolls are programmable data to be executed through a piece of hardware.

The term material meanings, so crucial for the juridical practices , remain elusive and abstract. As Gitelman shows the very concept has being challenged numerous times. So, the self-playing pianos helped to challenge the material meanings of printed music, as well as mp3 files downloading process tremendously challenged the meanings of compact discs.10

questions for discussion
1. Would you consider piano rolls to be similar in nature to phonograph recordings, audio mp3 files, or they may be counted as the early programs or machine codes?

2. In your opinion, were piano rolls representing a kind of music notation, and thus were they violating the copyright laws.

3. Knowing that by many manufacturers the self-playing piano was expected to replace the conventional pianos in every household, and to become an instrument of the future, why this industry eventually had no financial success?


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