Now wrongly seen as a musical dinosaur, the pianola was once a firm fixture in every parlour. It remains a firm fixture in Rex Lawson's parlour along with his four cats, his three-foot beard and his 10,000 piano rolls who all live together in south-east London. The cellar where he keeps all the fox-trots is cold and rather damp. By a happy coincidence, this is exactly what the fragile paper piano rolls like best: an air-conditioned, centrally-heated cellar would have turned them to dust by now.
Invented at the end of the last century, the pianola allowed great music to be reproduced in the home by anyone with a good set of calf muscles. In some ways the invention was a destructive force in domestic music- making: suddenly you didn't have to spend your time fingering with the piano teacher to play all the right notes. But the pianola was also a force for good in musical education which made it possible to play the finest music in places no concert pianist would ever tread. Paderewski, Rachmaninov and Gershwin, among others, saw the force of this and made recordings direct to pianola. Stravinsky, ever a fan of polyrhythms, was a big enthusiast, but the biggest idea belonged to George Antheil, the Polish-American composer and self-styled "Bad Boy of Music", who rather fancied a massed chorus of pianolas and wrote his 1927 Ballet Mecanique for 17 of them. It has yet to be played as written.
The pianola is automatic only in the sense that, say, a lawn mower is automatic because the results vary enormously depending on the skill of the operator. In the end, Antheil's ambitious project was performed on a mere handful of pianos plus the various bits of percussion and the siren demanded by the score. It is Rex Lawson's earnest wish to stage the piece as Antheil intended but player-piano virtuosos are thin on the ground and without that level of expertise the synchronisation of 17 instruments is a bit of a non-starter.
The most famous exponent of the player-piano was Conlon Nancarrow. Born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1912 he studied music in Cincinnati and Boston under Roger Sessions and Walter Piston. After fighting the fascists in Spain, Nancarrow was regarded with increasing suspicion by the US authorities who suspended his passport, finally causing him to retreat to Mexico in disgust in 1940. He wasn't given a visa to return until 1981. He remained in almost total seclusion, creating music of increasing complexity. Dissatisfaction with an early human performance of one of his compositions led Nancarrow to experiment instead with the tireless precision of the pianola. Over the last decade his Studies have become hugely fashionable. They were released on CD, some were reorchestrated for live performance by fit young pianists with a streak of musical machismo resolved that they could play the unplayable.
The inevitable emphasis on the complex timing and superhuman speed of Nancarrow's music means that people often lose sight of the sometimes quite everyday influences that underpin it. Just as Stravinsky deconstructed popular musical forms, many of Nancarrow's Studies are rooted in an everyday dance rhythm such as the tango or boogie woogie. You can't stick to the beat exactly, but you can definitely dance to it. John Cage arranged some early Nancarrow studies for Merce Cunningham in 1960 and it was only a matter of time before Siobhan Davies, famous for her interest in challenging 20th century music, would turn to Nancarrow for inspiration. Although his work is all available on tape she chose to work with live music and Rex Lawson, who met Nancarrow several times and who regularly performs his work, was the obvious choice.
It was the first time Lawson had worked with dancers and contemporary choreographers' relaxed relationship with their chosen music came as something of a surprise to him. "I thought they danced to phrases, but they don't. She got the dancers to dance within the music - she certainly can't get them to dance to the speed of the music, they'd be running around like jellybeans".
For Lawson, the dynamic of the dance mimics the action of the pianola itself: "The ones rushing around were like the notes on the roll and the ones walking round the stage were like the roll itself." Davies's company have been rehearsing to recordings and before Thursday's premiere Lawson was slightly anxious that the switch from taped music to live pianola would prove difficult: "You can never guarantee a pianola's going to sound the same twice. You have to have your eye on the roll."
Lawson's player-piano is equipped with various levers to enable him to humanise the sound. While his legs and feet pump away his fingers and thumbs tweak artistically at the levers like a pinball wizard, regulating the soft and sustaining pedals, varying the speed and adjusting the balance between left and right hand to approximate the pulse that sets apart man from machine.
On Thursday night in Oxford Lawson used all his skill when he accompanied Siobhan Davies's 88 (a reference to the number of keys on a conventional piano). As always with Davies's work, the piece was a rich blend of perfections. David Buckland's set of steel tubes and pillows was lit by Peter Mumford's remarkable arrangement of sidelights and baby spots which played about the stage like searchlights, colouring the mood and manner of the dance with a succession of green, violet and crimson filters.
As the impossibly rapid glissandi of Study No 25 shiver up and down the treble keys, the dancers move with confidence in the calmer waters of the bass notes. Later Deborah Saxon folds her body back and forth in a ravishing solo to the bluesy triplets of Study No 4 and makes dancing to these fractured rhythms appear the most natural thing in the world. Meanwhile, Rex Lawson, a key contributor to an exhilarating evening, sits alone in the pit while the impossible emanates from the instrument in front of him in a fantastical polyrhythmic stream. Man and machine in perfect harmony.
Wycombe Swan (01494-512000) 6 May; Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000) 15-16 May, Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333) 22-23 May; Grand Theatre, Blackpool (01253 290190) 29-30 May.
Rex Lawson performs various works for pianola at the Jacqueline du Pre Theatre, St Hilda's College Oxford tonight. He is director of The Pianola Institute. Membership enquiries: Mike Davies, 70 Blackheath Park, London SE3 0ET.