The Player Piano

When you listen to a recording, you are hearing the artist performing in the past, in a format that will remain for many years to come, given proper archival treatment.  Recently, I finished watching two seasons of HBO’s Westworld, a fantastic rendition of the Michael Crichton story and remake of the original film starring Yul Brenner.  There were many plot twists and liberties taken with the script, but I want to talk about the player piano.

The piano itself is a central theme from the beginning, and appears in the introduction to each episode.  It is worth noting that the robots who play them aren’t necessarily playing at all, as the piano knows the program from the holes punched in the scroll.  It is an early form of the “magic” used by programmers to emulate life.

In a scene that fans of the series will remember, there is an old Edison Cylinder player outside on a porch while people are dancing.  I was unable to determine the song, but most agreed that it was preceded by a piece called “Reverie” by Debussy.  I inherited a fairly large collection of Edison Cylinders a while back and so I was intrigued to find out whether I actually had the music they were playing.  As it turns out, the piece in question does not appear in any blue Ambersol or other cylinder collection recorded for sale at the turn of the century through the twenties when this format first became popular and lasted until the phonograph made them obsolete.

So I went on YouTube to search more for the music.  What I found there struck a chord.  Here was a video entitled “Debussy plays the Sunken Cathedral.”  It is a beautiful, haunting piece of music.  But, of course, it was not an original audio recording, it was a paper piano roll recorded from a player piano that Debussy had played.  Even more eloquently than words, the touch of the keys were recorded with fidelity to match Debussy’s every stroke, if not the forcefulness of his style.  In this way, his performance, more than just the sheet music, still lives on.

Late in the series, there is a library where people’s lives have been recorded, their personalities more precisely.  One character says that they discovered emulating a human being was a relatively short ten-thousand lines of code.  And when the books in this library were opened to reveal the codes, there were no printed letters or numbers.  They were all pages, punched like the rolls of a player piano, our performances of a lifetime, recorded with fidelity in a book for future reference.

Here is where I depart from the story to observe that in a similar way, our lives are being recorded now to the Internet in a way that may one day read like the lines of the player piano, not simply reproducing what our interests and actions are, but who we are in a far deeper and more sacred way.  The story of Westworld poses the general question of where automation ends and life begins.  How do our daily routines, programmed or not, differ from those of the characters in a play or movie, scripted, repeating on demand, and preserved for posterity?

You may have had the eerie experience of visiting a friend or relative’s Facebook page or other social media page, after they have passed away.  It is an unscripted chapter and verse of a person’s selective interactions with their friends and community.  These friends appear in our timelines, unbeckoned, sometimes jarringly because of the deep feelings they evoke, as memories, or as Debussy and the French would put it, as Reveries.  The story of HBO’s Westworld begins with the creator adding Reveries to the programmed “robots” that inhabit the world.  For the first time, these beings experience memories, sometimes clouded and incomplete, from previous experiences, even previous lives where they had a different role to play.  This “dream” element of their story, more than any other factor, ironically serves to wake these beings into consciousness in a way that is more human than automated.

We may have other instances of the player piano where part of a person’s life is recorded in a way that brings them back, momentarily, to our present, and we again long for their company.  It is worth noting that as with the player piano, it is the hole in the paper and in our lives that brings the experience to life.  Sometimes that which is missing defines us more than what we have kept or what we are allowed to keep.  In remembering what we used to have and what we cherish, our present becomes more precious and real.

Henry Lyons is the owner of Finestkind Web Design in Dresden, Maine. He can be reached at, or through his website

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