Pianola

In Circe, as Zoe and Bloom stand talking in the street outside Bella Cohen's bordello, she asks him, "Are you coming into the musicroom to see our new pianola? Come and I'll peel off." Inside, Zoe and Stephen plunk around on this expensive novelty, and later a hallucinated Professor Goodwin plays it with wild abandon. Finally, as the action grows wilder still, the pianola springs to life as a character, playing and singing My girl's a Yorkshire girl. The pianola was an automated piano-playing device that achieved wide popularity in the US and UK in the early 20th century. It is hard to say exactly what kind of device Bella owns, given some strange details in Circe.

“Pianola” was the trade name for piano-playing devices manufactured and distributed by the Aeolian Company of New York beginning in the late 1890s. Precursor of the fully integrated player piano, the pianola was a moveable accessory positioned to cover the keyboard of an ordinary piano. As the operator pumped foot pedals to generate pneumatic pressure, suction-activated mechanical "fingers" pressed the keys of the piano, controlled by perforations in a paper roll wrapped around a rotating drum.
In the days before phonographs and radio, the parlor piano was where middle-class music was made, and in the absence of a skilled player, the pianola could enliven the guests on its own. Music rolls in various styles could be purchased, and eventually featured actual performances by famous artists. But pianolas offered more than rote playback. They were equipped with controls that allowed the operator to vary tempo, volume, and sustain. Over time these controls became more sophisticated, allowing the pianola player to emerge as an admired parlor performer.

In 1903, Aeolian showcased its innovative “Metrostyle” model, originally developed at the Orchestrelle Company in London, an Aeolian subsidiary. The paper roll of the Metrostyle showed a running red line that the operator tracked with a stylus to modulate the tempo. It was a sensation, selling thousands of units in the UK. Aeolian’s machines and its rivals were popular enough that ‘pianola’ became a generic term for automated pianos which persists to this day. The circumstantial evidence of date and novelty suggests that Bella's instrument may well be a Metrostyle.

Joyce provides only sketchy details, however, and he takes some liberties with known forms of the pianola. When Zoe turns on the device, it features a crank, a coin-activation mechanism, and even a light show: “Turns the drumhandle.... She drops two pennies in the slot. Gold, pink and violet lights start forth. The drum turns purring in low hesitation waltz.” Such embellishments, evocative of the jukeboxes that came along later, were not found on pianolas available as of 16 June 1904. It seems also that the people in Bella's parlor can access the keys of the piano to play it in the ordinary way: "Stephen stands at the pianola on which sprawl his hat and ashplant. With two fingers he repeats once more the series of empty fifths." Later, when Bella asks, "Which of you was playing the dead march from Saul?," Zoe answers "Me" and she too appears to play the piano independent of a music roll: "She darts to the piano and bangs chords on it with crossed arms."

At this point in the narrative, Joyce does something stranger still. He brings in "Professor Goodwin," Molly's old accompanist who has been dead for twelve years, to take over from Zoe: "He sits tinily on the pianostool and lifts and beats handless sticks of arms on the keyboard." It is interesting not only that he seems to be playing the keys himself, but that he is a "Professor." Aficionados of jazz history will recall the bordellos of the legendary Storyville district in New Orleans, the large, thriving equal of Dublin's Monto which had reached its zenith as an institution by 1900, in a city where where a roiling, expatriate, Fenian-supporting Irish community flourished. Storyville's highest-class establishments featured elegant grand pianos played in classical and early jazz styles. “Countess” Willie Piazza furnished her brothel’s parlor with a perfectly tuned white grand piano, on which “only the finest musicians were allowed to play.“ These included the Creole musician Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, later known as “Jelly Roll Morton” after a product sold at the brothels where he began playing at the age of 14. The virtuosos in these establishments were invariably referred to as “Professor.”

Richard Scoville 2021

Advertisement for pianolas sold by the Orchestrelle Company, a subsidiary of the Aeolian Company. Source: www.joyceimages.com.

Photograph of Orchestrelle's Metrostyle pianola, published in vol. 26 of the Pianola Journal. Source: www.pianola.org.

Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, a.k.a. “Jelly Roll Morton.”