"I see the player piano as the grandfather of the computer, the ancestor of the entire nightmare we live in, the birth of the binary world where there is no option other than yes or no and where there is no refuge.” - William Gaddis
William Gaddis is best known as a novelist, but he labored for many years on a cultural history of the player-piano. He had begun thinking about the player-piano as the result of a fact checking assignment for the New Yorker in the early 1940s, and he died in 1998 without ever bringing the book to completion. His deep, ongoing work on the project, however, figured prominently in two of his five novels, and the archive of his personal papers, deposited at Washington University in St. Louis, contains much of his accumulated research. As with Vonnegut, player-pianos themselves were not really Gaddis’s concern. Rather, it was how the development and proliferation of these instruments undermined, as the critic Ed Park put it, “the possibility of art under the sign of commerce”. In the broadest sense, the player-piano was, for Gaddis, a means to understand and explain something much bigger, the formation and effect of capitalist modernity itself. Indeed, his was an interpretation of late capitalism grounded in the growing resemblance between art and commerce, both of which had become thoroughly mechanized, and in the historical, structural, and practical ways that art and commerce had become linked.
Nancarrow in Context: A Critical History of Player-Pianos and Mechanical Automation David Suisman, University of Delaware by David Suisman