George Gershwin accompanied by Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Columbia Jazz Band – Rhapsody in Blue (the 1925 piano roll)


Between 1916 and 1927 Gershwin recorded many of his works on piano rolls. On a specially prepared recording piano his playing was put as holes in paper that was rolling through the piano at the speed of about 2.1 meter per minute. Every note had a corresponding hole, with extra sometimes patented coding glyphs on the side for dynamics (to volume of the sound).

He recorded his famous work Rhapsody in blue in 1925 in this way. To reproduce that particular roll a lot needed to happen. Most of the mechanisms that could be used to play it were not in a good enough condition, so it involved some restoration work. This original version had to be played with a much smaller jazz orchestra, for which the sheet music was used by the National Symphony Orchestra.

The result is technically awesome, but I’ve heard better versions. What is nice is the smaller scale. It is also at times much slower than I was expecting. The tempi were surprising that way. Certainly an interesting version to hear.

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