Although not entirely famous as a result of his
compositions for player piano, Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997)
was regarded as a musical iconoclast. He began writing
these studies around 1947, in an effort to generate accurate
performances of his earlier instrumental pieces. As a result,
he produced a series of 50 studies, some of which
contained three to five movements, as well as some
written for two instruments.
Although born in the United States, Nancarrow joined the
Communist Party in the late 1930’s. In 1937, he spent
two years as a part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in
Spain, while fighting against the Fascist regime of
Francisco Franco. He lived most of his life in Mexico,
becoming a citizen there in 1955.
Inspired by composer Henry Cowell’s 1930 book,
New Musical Resources, Nancarrow embraced
Cowell’s (1897-1965) contention that the player piano
could be an ideal instrument with which to manifest
complex rhythmic relationships. As a result, Nancarrow’s
compositions for the player piano were written in the
decades between the 1940’s and 1980’s. A machine
that was developed during the late 1940’s and
later rebuilt to incorporate improvements,
assisted the composer in the painstaking process
of punching holes in player piano rolls.
Fortunately, the five-CD set that I heard,
“Nancarrow: Studies for Player Piano, Nos. 1-5” was
accompanied by a German-English booklet describing
all of the production specifics, as well as notes regarding
each of the studies and a biography of the composer.
While these discs were recorded during 1988 on
Nancarrow’s custom-altered Ampico reproducing piano
in Mexico City, they weren’t released by the WERGO
label until 1999.
The 62 tracks on these discs contained configurations
of music which boggled the mind on number of levels,
not in the least for the speed and rhythmic complexity
therein. The music was often tonal or modal,
encompassing genres including Jazz and
Boogie-Woogie, as well as Canons. Rapidly changing
and/or simultaneous meters were featured, along with
different speeds and dynamic levels, which would be
impossible to execute with mere human hands. Kudos
should also be given to composer James Tenney
(1934-2006), for his exhaustive analysis of
I believe that anyone who is interested in different
20th Century compositional techniques should hear
this significant and important body of work. Listen,
and be fascinated and amazed!