Nancarrow: Study No 6 for player piano  [2’48”]

Player piano, supervised by the composer

36 Conlon Nancarrow in his studio

Conlon Nancarrow amid accoutrements of his unique approach to composition

Surprisingly, given his deprecation of the art object, Cage became a fan of Conlon Nancarrow (1912–97), who spent much of his life, if not setting his works in stone, punching them into piano rolls, which is the nearest thing.  Born in Texarkana, Arkansas he developed early a strong independent streak, going off to Cincinnati then Boston to study composition against his parent’s wishes.  Later he would become a card-carrying communist, putting his convictions into action by going off alone once more, now to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.  Returning in 1939 he found himself treated not as a hero but as an untrustworthy lefty, his passport revoked by the US authorities.  True to form, his response to being regarded as a second-class citizen was to get out of the country, never to come back.  Of the two others he could visit without a passport, Canada and Mexico, he chose the latter on grounds of climate and didn’t leave again (taking citizenship in 1956) until his music had begun to attract a little recognition, 34 years later.

Nancarrow’s early music for conventional instruments met with little success – or none, to be more exact.  If what was lacking was a USP, he was soon to acquire a humdinger.  His primary interest was in rhythm, and increasingly as time went by in overlapping rhythmic patterns and rhythmic complexity generally, his ideas often exceeding the capacity of human beings, singly or in combination, to realize them.  Nancarrow once referred to Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources as having on his own thinking “the most influence of anything I’ve ever read in music,” and in one of the book’s propositions he found a key to the quandary this direction had presented him with.  “Some of the rhythms developed through the present acoustical investigation,” Cowell had written, “could not be played by any living performer; but these highly engrossing rhythmical complexes could easily be cut on a player piano roll.”  A player piano (sometimes pianola, though that is but one model) is a fully-functioning piano customized for activation not directly by a human performer but rather by holes cut into a roll of paper as it passes through a mechanism.  (A clip, by good fortune featuring our very choice here, shows one in action.)  It happens that Nancarrow was familiar with the device because his parents had owned one, but he now began to re-evaluate it in light of his compositional need.   When Ravel made his piano roll recordings (Track 23) his depression of the keys as he played effectively produced the holes.  But as Cowell suggested, holes could be cut to make the player piano play pretty much whatever could be dreamed up; and this opportunity of reverse engineering is what Nancarrow proceeded to exploit – though for the kind of thing he had in mind, punching the holes manually wouldn’t be done “easily” at all, requiring on the contrary extraordinary perseverance (a piece might take up to a year to execute).

Such was Nancarrow’s answer to a question, notwithstanding Beethoven’s frustration at the shortcomings of the “wretched fiddle” when the spirit moved him, that was essentially new in music, posed in the twentieth century for the first time by composers like Edgard Varèse and, a generation later, Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Why should music be limited by the movements of the human body when it could be doing something evolutionarily useful like expressing the humanly impossible?  Why shouldn’t a piano be made to counterpose the trickiest imaginable rhythms while one hand starts fast and gets slower and slower, the other slow and winding up impossibly fast?  To Nancarrow, “the number, proximity, and arrangement of our fingers are matters of manifest indifference” – certainly they became so once he had made his discovery.  Ten years later, as he once confided, he might have turned to electronic tape, as Varèse did on a couple of occasions and the younger, more tech-savvy Stockhausen from the beginning of his career.  But to hear him interviewed is to have confirmed the impression of a man who, once embarked on a course of action, would stick with it come hell or high water.  And for around four decades this bewhiskered magician, labouring assiduously in Las Águilas, his Mexico City colonia, composed exclusively for player piano, eventually producing around 50 studies, justifiably if somewhat inevitably described by The Rough Guide to Classical Music as “a kind of Well-tempered clavier for the machine age”.

They tended to grow increasingly complex over time, the studies sounding less jazzy and after a certain point more like demented machines as each succeeded the last.  (Though complex is not a synonym for serious; as Paul Griffiths has observed, “Nancarrow is one of the few great musical humorists”.)  Study 17 is a minute and a half of pure information overload, #21 enacts the crossing of tempi described above, #27 is one of those that make you wonder whether Conlon had been at the peyote (the passage beginning 2’30” being particularly deranged), while #29 for all the world resembles one of those spy transmissions you used to hear in the dead of night before digital took the fun out of radio.  Our sixth study, being early, sounds more like regular music, a little on the jouncy side maybe but not at all weird-sounding.  Already utterly personal, it sets off with what Nancarrow authority Kyle Gann refers to as a “cowboy tune”, and you needn’t be familiar with any actual cowboy music to know exactly what he means.  It is, to cite this time the website of the Pianola Institute, “an unusually poetic and lyrical study, reminiscent of tequilas in the warm Mexican sunsets, where the rising and falling of the occasional melodic line gives a sense of stirring from repose and sinking back into it”.  The sportive ending can only be described as Yanceyesque.

Two versions on Spotify of this study arranged for human beings allow it to be as it were re-heard, appreciated in a different way, or two. One, which I almost used here, is an arrangement for two pianos by English composer Thomas Adès, a great admirer; the other an equally soulful one for chamber ensemble by Yvar Mikhashoff.  In the latter, as well as its soulful beauty, the music’s structure, in particular the second half’s (from 1’48”) dependence on canon, so characteristic of Nancarrow’s manner in all moods, is brought out as though by x-ray – a clinical way to describe some wonderful music-making.

After decades of obscurity illuminated eventually by recognition from peers such as György Ligeti, of whom more anon, Nancarrow’s time has been coming a while, and now Stephen Fry is in his corner the deal is surely all but sealed.  Anyone wishing to explore his strange world – be warned, you may not wish to return – could do worse than start with this sound portrait before going on to listen to the man himself in conversation with Charles Amirkhanian (whose own work is worth a listen), on this album on Spotify.

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Note  The Amazon link here is to the five-CD Wergo box set, which investment is to be preferred to the earlier four-disc version on Spotify, not least for its booklet’s superb and very detailed notes by James Tenney.  I couldn’t for the life of me find this in iTunes, however.