Classical music: Look - no hands!

Don't shoot the pianola-player. Jonathan Sale meets Rex Lawson, the man who brought Percy Grainger back to life for the Last Night of the Proms
Rex Lawson's biggest audience was for Grieg's Piano Concerto at the Last Night of the 1988 Proms. The conductor brought in the drums; he brought in the strings and woodwind; he pointed his baton towards the empty piano stool... and the piano began to play. It was no human piano- player but a mechanical player-piano that was pressing down the keys.

Dating back to around 1897, these musical automatons are now being resurrected and dusted off. There is at least one American company that still manufactures them, another that still turns out the wide rolls of paper which produce the notes.

These rolls resemble ancient Roman scrolls - apart from the small, neat holes punched all over them. Which note is played depends on the position of the holes: as the paper winds past, air is sucked down tiny tubes that activate the individual hammers.

A pianola, left to itself, merely reproduces notes like a robot reading a score: it's the human touch on the foot-pump that controls speed and expression. But the electric model used by Lawson at the Proms reproduces exactly the performance made when the roll was first cut. In this look- no-hands version, the keys go up and down by themselves: "The Master's Fingers at Your Piano", as one manufacturer's slogan had it. At that 1988 Prom the ghostly digits were those of Percy Grainger; George Gershwin and Scott Joplin are other maestri on tap.

For a system that was theoretically pushed aside by the arrival of hi- fi, mechanised music still commands a lively interest, and tomorrow Lawson and fellow British player-piano enthusiasts play host to the 25th convention of the American Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors' Association - the first ever held outside North America.

The 150 delegates - each paying $1,000, plus fares - will enjoy a week of rolling piano rolls, including a river trip (with pianola), a sea trip to Holland (with pianola), an after-noon at Dulwich College (with pianola) and a Purcell Room concert (with pianola) on Monday. Such is the interest among America's pianola buffs, there's even a plan for them to swap rolls via the Internet.

Rex Lawson won't be joining them on-line: he doesn't even have a phone, let alone a modem. Now 47, and divorced, he lives above a row of shops in London SE23, sharing his flat with four cats and two pianolas.He hasn't shaved since 1972.

Having worked briefly as a Decca engineer, he read music at Nottingham and stayed on as manager of the English Sinfonia. Then, after a stint as music officer at Eastern Arts,he lived for a year in what had been the organ loft of the old church that houses the Brentford Piano Museum.

Pianolas first entered his life when he was at school; a couple of defunct models used to lie around what had been the Dulwich College cinema. He first bought his own during his second year at Nottingham. "I used to walk home past a junk shop where there was an upright with about 100 rolls. It cost pounds 100 - an immense sum for me then. It still is!" Later, he came across another at the bargain price of pounds 12. "I pedalled at it and nothing happened, so the fellow said, 'OK, pounds 6'."

Discovering that concertos existed for pianola and orchestra, he suggested that English Sinfonia give one a whirl, and has been giving concerts for a living ever since. An early programme, entitled The Four Player-Pianos of the Apocalypse, featured four ghostly instruments hammering out the 1812. His latest, at the Catford Festival, was entitled My Daughter Has a Great Foot for Music.

Unmusical automaton though it is, the pianola has one advantage over mere mortals: it can produce chords of a greater spread than any human hand can encompass - a fact that has endeared it to composers such as Stravinksky and Nancarrow.

The most ambitious work ever written for it is George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique, which is scored for 17 player-pianos, plus three propeller motors, two grand pianos and a siren. Sadly Lawson knows of only one other pianolist who can follow a conductor while operating his instrument, so Antheil's extravaganza is more usually given (as it will be at the Proms next month) in a more minimalist version for four grand pianos.

Lawson has performed it at Carnegie Hall - a venue where, he admits, he would not normally be invited on his own merits as a "straight" pianist. So what would he be doing if he'd never discovered the pianola? "I'd probably be playing the bassoon." And no, he has never heard of a mechanical bassoon.

n AMICA open afternoon: Sunday 3-6pm, Dulwich College, London SE21, admission free. Pianola Prom: Monday 7.30pm RFH3, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)