For too long, player piano-human interactions have been a one-way conversation. But thanks to a little techno-tinkering, this no longer need be the case. Sing for Hope Pianos, an annual art project that places 88 piano-based installations throughout New York City, has teamed up with digital boutique agency Digital Kitchen to reinvent the old timey player piano for the social media age. The result: Stanley, the player piano that can read your tweets and play (just about) any song you send his way.
Stanley (who the team behind “him” always refer to in the third person) is able to isolate the name of songs or artists that are submitted to him via his Twitter handle, @stanleypiano. The tweets then get imported into a custom CMS (Content Management System) known as STANDFORD. Utilizing a database of stored MIDI files that have been cleaned and tailored to make them specifically “Stanley Friendly,” the CMS creates a queued playlist of tunes.
“Some independent songs had to be hand transcribed for Stanley,” says Ben Chaykin, the hardware creative behind Stanley “and if we don’t have the song, we can try our best to find it online and clean it up with a quick turnaround.” Once a song is added to the cue a @reply will be sent to the requestor to let them know the song is ready to go.
I personally witnessed Stanley blow through a few bars of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” followed by a rendition of rapper Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” and Brittney’s “Toxic" (featured in the video below).
Songs can also be requested directly to Stanley by those in shouting distance. Stanley will be attached with a video display and speaker that will allow him to interact with onlookers via a “man behind the curtain” situation manned by Chaykin or other members of Team Stanley.
The first iPod
The player piano could be considered to be one of the first iPods (or perhaps Spotify or ThisIsMyJam for some of our younger readers), in that it was the preferred form of technology for popularizing and spreading popular tunage. The player piano, which can claim roots back to the 19th century, began its decline from the popular consciousness in the 1920s when the phonograph began to overtake the medium. Music distribution technology has of course been reinvented many times since then, and Stanley represents this journey coming full circle.
Stanley himself is a vintage 1920s-era player piano powered by a MacBook Air that lives in his innards. The MacBook reads the MIDI files and uses them to activate a series of electric solenoid valves, which in turn operate the individual keys.
Onlookers will see (and hear) Stanley’s undulating bellows connected to the original vacuum pump that powered him at his construction. While they have no functional value, the design team decided to keep the vintage steampunk aesthetics in place.
Stanley will be perform for the public on June 1-2 and streaming live from stanleypiano.com for anyone to interact with. After his run, Stanley will be donated to charity and after a century of various forms of service will live on as a regular player piano in the comforts of retirement.