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.
Nancarrow came up with an interesting solution to the problem. The idea was for “Study No. 48” to be a player piano duet. He achieved this through the magic of recording. “48a” and “48b” are the two halves, which appear separately, and “48c” combines them, the way had always intended them to be heard.
Works on Rolls closes with three 1983 compositions which initially belonged to the largest work of Nancarrow’s career, The Betty Freeman Suite. At the Los Angeles premiere in January 1984, the Suite was comprised of five movements. When he heard the Suite performed, Nancarrow did not like it. He revised it by dropping two of the movements, and shuffling the running order. The resulting Suite became (in order) “Study No. 46,” “Study No. 45d,” and “Study No. 47.”
When it comes to the avant-garde, sometimes the theoretical concepts of a work can overshadow the music itself. A famous example of this is John Cage’s 4′ 33″ (sometimes called Silence). In performance, the musician sits down in front of his piano and plays nothing at all for the duration of the score. The “music” is the sound of the audience murmuring among themselves, shuffling their programs, and other extraneous sounds.
Nancarrow’s music has been described as “brittle,” “cacophonous,” and “unorthodox.” “Easy listening” is definitely not a term that most people would associate with it. So know what you are getting into. To be honest, I was initially attracted to Nancarrow’s work primarily because of the gimmick of it being composed for player piano. But after hearing it, I found the music to be wildly adventurous and highly intriguing.
Whatever your motivations are for listening to Nancarrow’s music, I think it is a marvelous thing to expand one’s musical horizons. He was a true original. The German record label Wergo has done an outstanding job with Late and Unknown: Works on Rolls and the single CD collection is highly recommended.