Aria Mechanica

Aria Mechanica (2021)
video installation / performance
Lottie Sebes: Aeolian push-up pianola performance, video and sound, concept
Adrienn Illés: Piano
Coding assistance: Steele Clifton Berry
Aeolian restoration and assistance: Christian Müller

Perforated paper scroll “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” by Offenbach for pianola, graphically re-interpreted and played on piano by Adrienn Illés, MIDI converted, laser cut and played on Aeolian 1906 push-up pianola by Lottie Sebes


Aria Mechanica is a project which layers human and machinic musical interpretations of a perforated paper roll – originally designed to be played by a Vorsetzer Pianola. A Vorsetzer is a musical automaton dating from the early 20th century. These instruments were designed to be pushed up to the keys of a piano and typically contain a foot-pedal operated pneumatic mechanism, which a human player can pedal to play the music recorded on a perforated paper scroll.

This project’s process began with such a perforated paper roll of an aria from Offenbach’s Opera ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ which, before being placed in an automaton, was first interpreted as a graphic score by a human pianist – Adrienn Illès. This interpretation was then recorded, converted to MIDI and laser cut into a new paper scroll, designed for the specifications of a 65 note Aeolian Vorsetzer from 1905. This laser-cut scroll was finally played by me on an Aeolian Vorsetzer, forming loop of multiple imperfect interpretations of the machine’s recorded media.  Rather than a traditional piano, the Vorsetzer played a midi keyboard, triggering sampled sounds of my breath, pitched across the breath of the keyboard. At every step in this multi-layered process of interpretation, translation and re-translation of the score, aspects of inaccuracy, modification, or poetic license – be it via human or machine ‘error’ were contributed to the piece.

In the performance, the varied interpretations which emerged from this process are played in polyphonic chorus. Adrienn’s performance with the piano and original score occurs in dialogue with a video of my performance with the Vorsetzer and the laser-cut scroll. Adrienn breathes into an electronic pneumatic device to turn the paper scroll as she plays it. Thus, the original scroll is voiced by piano and triggered by her breath, while in the video, the scroll is triggered by me pushing air through mechanisms of the Vorsetzer and voiced by my breath. Air and agency are passed between human and non-human players of the work as their varied interpretations are woven into a poly-perspectival expression of the scroll of Offenbach’s piece.

This process makes a claim to the genealogy of the technical structures with which it engages, including MIDI as a musical storage medium that can be traced directly back to piano rolls, as well as the story of Olympia from Offenbach’s opera – the singing mechanical doll with whom the male protagonist falls in love – and who invokes a cast of similar feminized musical automata from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Jacquet-Droz’s harpsichordist and Faber’s vocal simulator ‘Euphonia’. Questions of agency, will and control permeate the discourses surrounding these female-formed musical automata who, by virtue of their mechanical, clockwork bodies formed by their male inventors, could not possess their own wilfulness. The later invention and marketing of the pianola too had pertinent gendered implications, in that the pianola made it possible for women’s role as primary domestic musicians in middle class families to be usurped by their male counterparts, for whom musical training was not a standard part of education.

In Aria Mechanica, Adrienn and I assert our own agency in this web of historical gendered associations, questioning and interrogating the historical association of women with musical automata and disrupting the binaries which have normatively divided men and women, as well as humans and machines.  Working in partnership with machinic and human collaborators, the idiosyncrasies of machine functioning and of human interpretation have combined to determine the transformation score and composition of the work.




Tags: 2021