Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) was one of the first American composers to specifically compose pieces for a machine to play. Nancarrow faced an uphill battle in getting his music played, as it was extremely difficult for musicians to perform. In reading Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, Nancarrow found the answer in the player piano. The instrument was something of a novelty when it was introduced, but nobody had really thought about what could be accomplished with a piano that had no human limitations. Nancarrow’s lasting achievement were his compositions for the player piano, which offered the ability to produce extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the capabilities of humans.
In all, Nancarrow produced over 50 Studies for the player piano. He was influenced by, and influenced much of, the classical avant-garde of the mid-to late-20th century. But for much of his life his work was lost in obscurity. Part of the reason for this was his self-imposed exile in Mexico, which lasted until the end of his life. Then there is the music itself, which remains as challenging as ever.
The newly released Late and Unknown: Works on Rolls contains eight pieces composed between 1977 and 1988. The CD contains several first recordings made on Nancarrow’s player pianos.
The five-minute "For Ligeti" (1988) opens the disc. As the title indicates, it is dedicated to Gyorgy Ligeti, who became something of a Nancarrow sponsor in the ‘80s. "Three Canons for Ursula" (1988) follows, also dedicated to a respected peer. In this case, Nancarrow chose to honor the American pianist Ursula Oppens. The piece is further distinguished by the fact that it is the last and largest of the works that Nancarrow composed for solo piano.
For this listener, the most impressive piece is "Study No. 48" (1977). This is another tri-part composition, broken down into “Study No. 48a,” “Study No. 48b,” and “Study No. 48c.” The liner notes explain that one of the biggest frustrations Nancarrow faced in using player pianos was in synchronizing them. This certainly makes sense when you think about it. Each piano was an individual work of art in its own right, and no two were exactly alike.