Highlights from the Ethnomusicology Archive: the Robert Berkman collection

Robert "Bob" Berkman is one of a handful of performing pianolists in the world today.  Instead of the purely mechanical renditions often associated with the player piano, Berkman’s performances sparkle with life and emotion through his expert manipulation of the pianola’s subtle controls.  In addition to his performance expertise, Berkman worked at one of the last companies that produced piano rolls, and is a well-known collector of piano rolls and an expert in the subject.  He donated an important collection of piano rolls to the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.  The collection includes a wide variety of musical traditions, including Spanish, Greek, Polish, Czech, Italian, Hungarian, and German piano rolls.


"Have pianola will travel” with Robert Berkman (starts at 0:12)


Player pianos were extremely popular in the United States from 1890 into the 1930s.  At one point in the 1920s more than half of the pianos sold in the United States were player pianos.1  Although they were produced by a number of different companies, most of them played from long paper scrolls.  The sound quality of the player pianos was superior to that of the early Edison cylinder player.  Among the thousands of piano rolls manufactured during the 20th century, many are rolls of the music of immigrants to the United States. 


Mr. Berkman playing the Lithuanian player piano roll "Merguzeles"

"Merguzeles" is part of the Berkman collection of piano rolls held by the Ethnomusicology Archive.  This performance was captured during a recording session in which Lithuanian piano rolls held by the Archive were played and recorded so that the music could be repatriated to Lithuania.  A CD and catalogue of the music has been released: Lietuviška muzika pianolai [Lithuanian Music for Pianola]. Kaunas: Technologija, 2010. ISBN 978-9955-25-903-9.


The finding aid for the collection is here.


Read what Berkman wrote about the collection when he first donated it to the Archive, "Piano Rolls Find Home in Archive - Bob Berkman Collection."


And check out...

UCLA Ethnickelodeon concert to bring pianola instrument back to life

Spend your Monday evening listening to robot pianos!

Bob Berkman will demonstrate at the National Gallery of Art why the pianola still rules.  To quote, "Berkman’s interest in the neglected area of ethnic rolls had prompted him to establish the largest institutionally held collection of such rolls at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive, where he has taught and performed as a visiting scholar."

National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Oral History Program:  Bob Berkman

Berkman supplied some Maloof roll recordings for the soundtrack of "Cedars in the Pines: Documenting the Lebanese Community in North Carolina"

Bob Berkman biography



  • 1. Timothy D. Taylor, "The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of "Mechanical Music" in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring/Summer, 2007), pp. 281-305.
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