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Gershwin Playing Gershwin Tops Charts

American composer George Gershwin is topping the music charts again - thanks to a unique combination of musical recording technologies that span the 20th century.

``Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls'' utilizes music technologies from the beginning and end of the century to revisit the piano rolls Gershwin created 70 to 80 years ago for player pianos.

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The compact disc from Elektra Nonesuch records rose to the top of the classical music charts this week - perhaps the first time since the 1920s that piano rolls have caught the imagination of an American audience.

The collection includes Gershwin's first published song, ``When You Want 'em You Can't Get 'em,'' which was made into a piano roll in 1916, when the composer was just 17, but never before recorded.

Also included are ``Rhapsody in Blue,'' probably Gershwin's best-known work, and ``An American in Paris,'' an elaborate and stunning orchestral work played on two pianos.

Billboard magazine reported in its most recent issue that the rolls were the top-selling classical recording and were No. 2 in a wider category after the movie soundtrack from ``Schindler's List.''

One reason the rolls have become so popular is that they sound so rich and varied - anything but the clunky pounding one might expect on an antique player piano.

Piano rolls were found just about everywhere in the early 20th century, from saloons and concert halls to the homes of wealthy listeners. They were played back on player pianos and were prevalent until the phonograph and radio were introduced.

For the recording, music scholar Aris Wodehouse gathered the piano rolls from collectors around the world and played them back on a 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier, a computerized grand piano that plays music digitally recorded on floppy disks.

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``When we began this project (in 1988), we had no idea what we would do, and it was not until '92-'93 that we were able to use the Disklavier,'' Wodehouse said.

The task of putting the yellowed and frayed rolls onto a computer disk - essentially translating ancient software into the digital age - was lengthy and complicated.

It involved a team of software programmers, technicians, engineers, and Wodehouse herself, pumping a 1911 piano player hooked directly into the Yamaha Disklavier.

Other pieces were translated directly from the piano rolls onto computer software, using a specially created program, and then played back by the Disklavier.

The project mirrored the work that Gershwin put into the original rolls, which were an amalgam of his playing and arranging and editing by a specialist.

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