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Rex performing at the South Bank in London, March 2003
Photo by Robert Wilson

In concert halls and recording studios throughout the world, Rex Lawson's name is synonymous with the pianola; not the brash, mechanical variety found in cowboy films and backstreet bars, but rather the original pianola, a sophisticated instrument that responds well to serious study, and which fits in front of the keyboard of any normal concert grand, playing it by means of a set of felt-covered wooden fingers.

With Conlon Nancarrow - at home in London, c. 1988
Photo by unidentified BBC cameraman

Rex's music-making includes many fascinating discoveries that are unique to the pianola, such as the studies of Conlon Nancarrow, who also sketched out a concerto specially for him, or the unknown masterpieces of Igor Stravinsky, who spent fifteen years, one-sixth of his very long life, re-composing all his major early works, in versions that are impossible to play by hand. Rex also has a remarkable selection of the regular piano repertoire at his command, both two-hand and four-hand, including much chamber music and many of the romantic concertos. Over the past thirty years he has performed with some of the world's leading musicians, from Pierre Boulez to Sir Simon Rattle, and in concert venues from New York's Carnegie Hall to Venice's La Fenice, from the Royal Festival Hall in London to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Carnegie Hall in 1989 with Maurice Peress and nine Baldwin concert grands!
Photo by Charles Amirkhanian

Rex Lawson was born in England in 1948, at Bromley in Kent, to parents who had met through playing two-piano music, and who fostered a strong tradition of informal concert-giving in the family home.

Life with the Lawsons in the late 1940s
Sketch by Jack Boreham

Educated at Dulwich College and the University of Nottingham, where he read music, Rex also won scholarships to study piano, organ and bassoon at the Royal College of Music, and he took part in his first concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1959. As a very young man he worked as a trainee at the Decca Record Company, in the days of John Culshaw, where he made many friends in the professional musical world, welcoming no less than Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to his 21st birthday party in the Studio 3 canteen! Fascinated by the acquisition of his first pianola in 1971, he abandoned plans for a more traditional musical career, and initially concentrated on concerts with automatic reproducing pianos, bringing back Percy Grainger to play the Grieg Piano Concerto at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1972, over ten years after the pianist's death. Many similar concerts ensued during the 1970s, in which he presented Rachmaninoff, Paderewski, Busoni and Percy Grainger on the stage of London's Purcell Room.

Percy Grainger and English Sinfonia at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, December 1972
Unknown photographer

At the same time, with the help of William Candy, former music roll critic of the Gramophone and Musical Times, and the last surviving professional pianolist from the original era, Rex began studying the pianola, the foot-operated player-piano, making his major international debut in 1981 in Paris, performing in the world première of Stravinsky's Les Noces (1919 version), under the direction of Pierre Boulez.

Les Noces with Boulez in 1981

Since that time he has performed extensively throughout Europe and North America, and highlights of a rewarding international career have included an appearance as soloist at Carnegie Hall in George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique, the renewed resuscitation of Percy Grainger for the Last Night of the Proms in 1988, and the first concert performances of nearly all of Stravinsky's pianola works, including the Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

With Colin Matthews and friends at the Aldeburgh Festival, June 1985
Unknown photographer

Academic Work
As well as his lifelong concert activities, Rex Lawson has played an active part in the academic musical world, and during the 1980s he helped to found the Pianola Institute, a non-profit educational charity which publishes an annual scholarly journal and occasional CD recordings, and which also promotes pianola and reproducing piano concerts. He publishes his own perforated music rolls, on the Perforetur label, which he initiated in 1986, and he has around three hundred mainly classical titles to his credit. Rex is generally regarded as the world expert on Stravinsky and the Pianola, and he is the author of the Pianola Institute website, at www.pianola.org, frequently quoted as the leading internet authority on the history of the player and reproducing piano.

Concerto Performances
In the late 1980s, Rex's meetings with Conlon Nancarrow resulted in the rather frail American composer working on a Concerto for Pianola and Chamber Orchestra, which sadly he did not live to complete. However, all of Conlon's original sketches were brilliantly transformed by the English composer, Paul Usher, into Nancarrow Concerto, creating a new and inspiring work in the same spirit of musical adventure, which Rex premièred with Ensemble Modern at the West German Radio in 2004.

Kasper de Roo and Ensemble Modern discovering the Pianola, Frankfurt, November 2004
Photo by Rona Eastwood

One should not imagine that pianolas have always remained on the periphery of musical history. Indeed, many composers of the early twentieth century had personal experience of pianola playing, and Rachmaninoff was no exception, owning a pianola at his Russian country estate, until the house and its contents were destroyed at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. Rachmaninoff's sister-in-law remembered him pedalling rolls of his own Second Piano Concerto, around the same time as he was writing the Third, and with this reminiscence in mind, Rex Lawson prepared new rolls of the Third Piano Concerto, which he played in 2007 with the Brussels Philharmonic under Yoel Levi, the world première of the work in this form. In the same year he also performed the Rite of Spring at the Salzburg Mozarteum, took Percy Grainger to play the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Bergen Philharmonic and Kristiansand Symphony Orchestras for Grieg's centenary, and acted as musical consultant and soloist for a month-long Pianola Festival presented by the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels.

Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto with the Brussels Philharmonic, June 2007
Photo by Bert van den Berg

Recent Music-Making
Since 2008, Rex's engagements have included the opening ceremony of the Lucerne Festival, the French première of Paul Usher's Nancarrow Concerto, with Ictus, at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, the Grieg Concerto in Illinois, lecture recitals at Stanford, UC Berkeley and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique in Cambridge, at the Royal Festival Hall and the Tonhalle in Zürich, Nancarrow Festivals in London, California and Sardinia, and chamber music performances in Oslo and at Alfred Brendel's country house festival at Plush in England.

George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique at the Tonhalle in Zürich, March 2013
Photo by Mezzo TV

Rex has also participated in choral music: in 2011 the BBC commissioned a new work for chamber choir and pianola, Gabriel Jackson's Airplane Cantata, written with Rex and the BBC Singers in mind, which was premiered on Radio 3 in the autumn of that year and went on to win for Gabriel the BASCA Choral Prize for 2012, for the best British choral work of the year. In 2013, Rex prepared the music rolls for Stravinsky's Les Noces, in the composer's 1919 version, completed by the Dutch composer, Theo Verbey, and he performed in the premiere of the work with live pianola, with James Wood and the RIAS Chamber Choir, at the Berlin Festival.

Stravinsky's Les Noces at the Philharmonie in Berlin, September 2013

Current Activities
In 2014 and early 2015 Rex Lawson is lecturing at academic conferences at Stanford and the University of Frankfurt, giving solo recitals at the Konzerthaus in Dortmund, performing George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique in Brussels, as an accompaniment to Fernand Léger's film, and launching a new player-piano centre at Stanford University, with lectures, recitals and concerto appearances with the University Symphony Orchestra.

Rex Lawson at his studio in south London
Photo by Rona Eastwood

In the midst of all this globetrotting with his pianola, Rex Lawson lives in south London with a remarkably understanding wife, a library of some thirteen thousand music rolls, and a well furnished computer and engineering workshop. He writes his own machine-code computer programs and enjoys presenting concerts in a number of European languages.

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