Westworld’s player piano is the great character that keeps getting overlooked

I am robot. HBO

Westworld returns for its hotly anticipated second season on April 22/23, simulcast in both the US and UK. The first season was a huge success – the closing episode was HBO’s highest-rated debut of all time.

Set in 2052, Westworld is a futuristic theme park populated by robotic hosts. Based on the 1973 movie by Michael Crichton, human customers pay to live out their most murderous and depraved fantasies, blurring the boundaries between performer and audience. The theme park imitates the American Old West of the second half of the 19th century – the age of steam and mechanisation that contained the seeds of modern robotics.

Much has been written about what will happen to Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and the other robotic hosts now that they appear to be overcoming the control of the programmers. I want to pay tribute to a hugely important character that has received far less attention – the player piano.

Westworld’s opening credits initially show what looks like an ordinary piano being played by robot hands. But then the hands move away and the piano plays itself, revealing this invention of the late 19th century that made music accessible at home in the days before the phonograph.

The piano features in Westworld’s Mariposa Saloon, run as a bar and brothel by Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton). We know pianos were used in Old West saloons, so this is certainly plausible. We later learn that there is also one in the office of robot creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins).

The player piano was essentially an early computer operating on a binary system. Westworld’s credits show the spool punched with holes that these pianos read, each of which indicated a note and its duration. Powered by the performer’s feet – and latterly by electricity – one could play famous, complex works without any musical competence.

This sense of vicarious performance fits neatly with the idea of rich thrillseekers shooting their way around a fake Wild West. Then there is the fact that player pianos always sounded mechanical, since they lacked the human interpretation and variation we expect in a live performance.

This symbol for humanity’s relationship to machinery is then expanded through Westworld’s soundtrack. Composed and arranged by Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi, it includes various famous piano works that would have featured on player pianos around the turn of the century, such as Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 14 in C Minor and Scott Joplin’s Weeping Willow Rag.

While fans have speculated heavily on the links between Debussy, the plot and the Robert Ford character, the soundtrack also contains more recent tracks such as The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black and Radiohead’s No Surprises. These were transcribed onto old binary spools especially for the show, both reinforcing the sense of mechanisation and representing the authenticity portrayed by the theme park’s set and characters to the paying clientele.

Play it again

Besides Westworld, the player piano has occupied a relatively prominent role in American fiction. Of particular relevance to the show is Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952), which described a post-war dystopian world where machines had replaced workers in factories.

Vonnegut’s debut. Wikimedia

In one key scene, a character named Ed Finnerty is depicted playing the player piano – effectively overriding its function and seizing back control from the mechanised world. Westworld co-producer Jonathan Nolan has credited Vonnegut with inspiring the show’s player piano, referring to it as a touchstone image of the show’s first season.

Another writer, Richard Powers, refers to the player piano as a predecessor to the computer in several novels. Most notable is The Gold Bug Variations (1992), since the piano itself is a descendent of the harpsichord for which Bach’s Goldberg Variations were written. References to both instruments create a sense of legacy, touching on a parallel theme of two intertwined love affairs a generation apart.

The works of William Gaddis similarly revisit the player piano – in his case, owing to a personal obsession, he gathered thousands of notes on the subject, intending to publish a history of the instrument. When his proposals were rejected it crept into his novels instead – before his frustrations boiled over in his posthumous swan song, Agapē Agape (2002).

The frail male narrator-protagonist repeatedly discusses player pianos, while the relentless style of the book is symbolic of the instrument – it starts and suddenly ends without space for breath, mimicking the way player pianos close a tune with no wind down, the spool still spinning blank paper.

Gaddis saw the player piano as symbolic of the mechanisation of the arts, and the gradual unravelling of society:

I see [it] as the grandfather of the computer, the ancestor of the entire nightmare we live in, the birth of the binary world where there is no option other than yes or no and where there is no refuge.

Not only do Westworld’s player pianos sit comfortably within this tradition – especially given the original film’s 1970’s roots – Gaddis’ opinion is eerily familiar with their use in the first season. They simultaneously hark back to a bygone era and nod to the digital world in which they reside.

Gaddis repeatedly likened player piano rolls to “phantom hands” reproducing the sounds of long-lost performers. Like the robotic hosts of Westworld – who it transpires have occupied the world for decades – a player piano’s mechanisation is almost timeless. Both repeat their scripts ad infinitum, continually preserving and recreating the past.

The player piano is therefore more than just a metaphor for Westworld’s robots. It represents the repetition of play in which the audience interacts, straddling the divide between past and present.

As the robotic hosts become more sentient in season two, it will be interesting to see how the instrument is used. In the trailer, Dolores Abernathy says that a “reckoning is here”, as a mechanised piano rendition of Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box plays in the background. It speaks to all of today’s worries about where artificial intelligence is taking us, and what happens if the day comes when the robots learn to be free.