Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Conlon Nancarrow and the Player Piano

If I wanted an example of what I personally find so great about the internet, the case of Conlon Nancarrow would be a good one to quote. When I was younger, he'd be no more than a footnote in a book about music: an eccentric US composer who gets mentioned after Ives, Cowell and Partch. The jolly cacophony of his Studies for Player Piano would have had to remain in my imagination, unless I was lucky enough to come across a recording in the local record library - fat chance. That was then. Now, someone has had the good sense to upload videos of them to Youtube.

Nancarrow, a communist who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, spent most of his life living in Mexico. He's most famous for composing these Studies. The player piano/pianola has two advantages over the more normal kind. It's not limited to playing the notes you can reach with two five-digit human hands  and it can play incredibly complex rhythms - for example you can make it play any number of musical lines at once, all moving at different speeds. Here's to jolly cacophony...


The Weaver of Grass said...

'Jolly cacophony' indeed - wouldn't like to try playing these - have enough on my plate practising the pieces I am working on!

Dominic Rivron said...

Fortunately they are humanly unplayable.

Alan Burnett said...

I did enjoy that. I had never heard of him before. That isn't cacophony - that is music in colour rather than in black and white

Loren said...

Then, again, there's something to be said for human limits.

Perhaps I have too much cacophony in my life at the moment and I need a little more order.

Andrew Shields said...

My Mom gave me an album of those pieces in high school, back around 1981. I'd forgotten how cool they are!

Another thing he did was use intransitive key signatures ...

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, everybody.

AB: If you enjoyed it, check out pianoplayerJH's channel on Youtube. There's plenty more where this came from!

Loren: You've really got me thinking about music as order versus chaos (is the order musical or abstract? In the case of the later the end result can sound chaotic) and also music as something tailored to what we feel we need. In the course of thinking about it I came across this:

AS: Lucky you. I wish I had discovered Nancarrow back then!

John Hayes said...

Amazing! I know the old jazz piano players like Fats Waller, Willie Smith etc. created piano rolls from their playing--in fact, the great jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams said she learned songs from piano rolls. But I wonder how this was created, since as you point out, it could only be played "mechanically" bu the instrument itself. I'd never thought about how the player piano takes the instrument beyond the limits of anatomy. Interesting indeed.

Dominic Rivron said...

John: I don't know much about Nancarrow's approach to the composition process, but I do know that in 1947 he "bought a custom-built manual punching machine to enable him to punch the piano rolls...The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work and very slow." (Wikipedia). There's a lot more about him on Wikipedia which is worth a read.

Andrew Shields said...

Here's a poem I've been puzzling about for a while, and it's about a player piano (Katherine Towers, from "The Floating Man"):


This is the tune it has known all along
but kept in its puppeteers' chest of velvet and string.

The notes of Chopin's Ballade march out
as if years of practice have put them
beyond the reach of mistake or expression.
The keys dip and lift, efficient as clocks,

and we notice the piano's reluctance to tremble or weep
as the signature dims into minor. When the adagio comes
there's no sigh, no blissful easing of fingers,
only a rickety pause that wants to be over.

With the last chord, the piano relaxes and shudders,
as if it has said what it meant, and none of it mattered.