Westworld’s player piano versions of 20th century rock hits went from delightful surprise to distracting gimmick to cultural phenomenon faster than Teddy getting killed in a shootout.
A full week after Westworld Episode 1 — “The Original,” first aired, Twitter was still exuberant over the discovery. Thousands of people all reported hearing “Black Hole Sun” or “Paint It Black” as if no one else had recognized the songs. Like Dr. Ford said, “They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before, something they fall in love with.”
Guys, this show is meta as fuck
But, beyond delighting fans who preferred freaking out over Radiohead over relishing the gorgeously poignant use of Shakespeare, John Donne, Arther Conan Doyle and Gertrude Stein, what was the deeper meaning behind the player piano tunes in the Sweetwater Saloon?
“All credit goes to showrunner Jonathan Nolan … he came up with that idea, and he was pushing those songs,” said Westworld composer Ramin Djawadi in an interview with Thrillist. “It’s been incredibly fun doing those arrangements on the piano in the saloon. It’s a little thing in the background that you might pick up on and then you think, ‘Hey, wait, that doesn’t belong there!’ It makes it contemporary and fun.”
Enter Stephen Kent
Nolan didn’t just pick some rock hits and ask for an orchestral version. Plenty of shows have done that. Instead, the Westworld team turned to Stephen Kent Goodman, of Gnaw-Vol-ty Rolls.
Goodman builds actual reels for actual player pianos. You give him a song, and he produces a reel of paper with holes cut in it. That paper rolls through the piano, striking keys in the exact pattern to make the song you hear.
Is that DNA in the opening credits?
In Westworld, the player piano represents the first computers — the technological ancestor of the hosts. Like the hosts, it’s built to entertain the guests. And like the hosts, it is coded to imitate the actions of a human.
As Roger pointed out, “When you see the reel spin by in the opening credits, it looks a lot like DNA.”
Speaking of the opening credits, note the player piano being strung by robot arms. Next we see it being played by robot hands. Then it begins playing itself. We’re watching evolution. And this sequence tells us the singularity is inevitable.
Westworld’s link to Kurt Vonnegut
Although Nolan explains he’s just a Radiohead fan and thought 20th century songs would be a good reminder that we’re watching a 22nd century simulation of the 19th century, we’d like to think the player piano goes a step further, giving a deserved nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel of the same name.
Player Piano, published in 1952, tells us about an automated society where engineers and the rich create machines to do all the work while the poor have no purpose and live meaningless lives.
If Westworld is taking any direction from Vonnegut, and we desperately hope it is, the geography of the Westworld map makes perfect sense — as does the intensity of the guests’ experiences as they venture farther from Sweetwater.
“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over,” Vonnegut writes in Player Piano. “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. … Big, undreamed-of things — the people on the edge see them first.”
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