"The Grandfather of the Computer"
The player piano is old.
It is old enough to remember
Spanish California, with
the dim fondness of
As the years pass,
it has learned new songs,
listening to brusque English
and a myriad of other tongues.
No one has really understood it
since its maker had fallen silent,
but understanding is not required
in order for people to stand near
and enjoy the music it plays.
The world is noisier now,
discordant sounds seeping
through the walls of the museum.
There are more minds, too,
that can touch the player piano
and glimpse an inkling of its being.
The air is quick with signals,
some harsh and others musical.
Most are no more than dumb beasts,
but a few are alive and alert.
A few humans, too, have
developed the power to touch
technology and speak its languages.
It hears the voices of young men,
their accent sounding so different from
the West Coast where it once lived,
but their joy in each other is the same.
"That piano, Stan -- I think it's alive!"
"Lawrence, it's just a piano."
"No, it's a player piano. They
were among the first real gizmos,
like the grandfather of the computer."
"What, you mean it can talk?"
"No, I don't think so. It only
seems to think about music, but
'think' isn't really the right word.
It's more like a program, but it
feels like it can program itself."
It could. It always had.
It had been built to make music,
to learn from the sounds around it
and incorporate them into songs.
The player piano took a snatch
from a long-forgotten cedar flute,
a guitar riff from Spanish California,
a bawdy song from a 1920s bathhouse,
and the laughter of the two young men,
transposing them together into a new tune.
"Stan, listen -- it's singing to us!"
"You are a hopeless romantic."
"Yeah, but you love me that way."
"Yes, Lawrence, I really do."
Their laughter muffles,
turns into something
slower and sweeter.
The music follows them
down into smooth communion.
The player piano lets the last note fade
as their footsteps drift away, knowing that
it has fulfilled its purpose once again:
it has been heard.
* * *
"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
Barrel pianos precede the later player pianos, dating from 1805 in local-America.
Player pianos started in the 1840s, reaching their typical form in the 1870s.
The European invasion from 1542-1769 preceded Spanish California from 1769-1821, followed by the Mexican period of 1821-1848 and the U.S. statehood continuing to the present.
Gay history has a long span in California, including the popularity of gay bathhouses. Some such places played music to aid in anonymity.