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The man behind Westworld's player piano scrolls

Laura  Barnes
The man behind Westworld's player piano scrolls

HBO’s latest show Westworld has been the subject of many water cooler office chats since its premiere at the beginning of the month.

Not only has its mix of cowboys and robots got people excited about how the unique storyline is going to pan out, but its use of music has also been a strong talking point.

During the opening credits, we’re presented with a pair of what looks like 3D printed skeletal hands playing the shows theme tune on a piano. As the credits continue, these hands move away from the keys but the piano keeps playing.

It turns out it’s a self-playing piano and we’re treated to a glimpse of the scroll with the notes of the tune marked out.
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Given the futuristic setting and how prominent special effect are in film and TV these days, one would be forgiven for thinking this was all CGI. But in actual fact, the scrolls are real and they were created by player piano expert Stephen Kent Goodman.

Goodman, who is the proprietor of a company that provides music transcription services, recently spoke to Thrillist about his work on Westworld.

He was contacted by the team behind the show and requested to make bespoke custom rolls for the production.

“They presented what we perceived as a nearly impossible project that had to be completed within a very short timeframe. Roll-arranging and -perforating doesn't work like that. It's a lengthy process,” he told the publication.

Despite this, Goodman was thrilled to have the chance to give the piano player some modern day exposure. He calls the popular 19th and 20th century instrument “America’s best-kept antique secret”.

To create the scrolls, Goodman has to convert MIDI files of the composition into a ‘cutting file’ using his own notation program. This file is what a perforator artist uses to punch the slits into paper to create a roll of music.

It wasn’t just the theme tune that Goodman was asked to convert. Throughout the show there are modern day songs that can be heard coming from player pianos.

In the first episode you can hear Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun tinkering away during a saloon scene, and the second episode features a piano player version of Radiohead’s No Surprises.

"The machine doesn't know it's not 1912. And there it is blasting out something that's a current hit of the day,” said Goodman.

He revealed that many of the most beautiful self-playing instruments are owned by private collectors, but he likes to prioritise his work to repair machines that will be seen by the public – those at museums, fairs etc. And he hopes the prominence of the piano player in Westworld will reinvigorate some of that popularity from the 19th and 20th century.

“There's a whole generation that's waiting for it. That's what motivated me to stop what I was doing and take on this Westworld assignment,” he explained. “I thought, 'They're going to reach a lot of younger people with this and it needs to be done correctly.' So, they came to the right place.”

If Westworld ends up as popular as fellow HBO hit Game of Thrones, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more player pianos in the public eye in the near future.

Check out the Westworld opening credits in the video below:


Tags: westworld , HBO , player piano , player piano scrolls , Thrillist , Stephen Kent Goodman

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