Studies for Player Piano, Conlon Nancarrow

by tacet

Studies for Player Piano is a fascinating, albeit utterly uncompromising, testament to the power of one man’s imagination. Indeed, it can be difficult to believe that all of its complexity, vitality and ingenuity is the work of a single musician. Written over a lengthy period from 1948 to 1992, this sprawling collection of pieces represents the lifetime obsession of American-born composer Conlon Nancarrow. Having emigrated to Mexico in 1940 in order to escape potential persecution as a communist sympathiser, Nancarrow lived the majority of his life cut off from the musical community, pursuing his idiosyncratic vision in virtual isolation.

Excited by the potential of mechanical music to achieve levels of speed and rhythmic complexity hitherto unimagined, Nancarrow decided to invest in a player piano in 1947. The instrument had always been dismissed as little more than a novelty, used for light entertainment but untouched by serious musicians; yet, something about the contraption attracted Nancarrow, appealing to his desire for scientific exploration as well as his acute sense of the absurd. In modifying its mechanism, Nancarrow was able to push his instrument’s speed to the absolute limit, almost surpassing the threshold of the human perceptual ability to distinguish between successive sounds.

Nancarrow’s sound-world exists in a state of hypersensuality and erratic hyperactivity: this music launches an assault on the senses with a relentless effusion of sound. Yet, whilst the adoption of the player piano certainly unlocked a wealth of new possibilities to Nancarrow in his explorations of rhythm and tempo, the medium imposed a stringent set of restrictions of its own. Indeed, despite its exaggerated sonic character, Studies for Player Piano can be viewed as a highly disciplined work. The self-imposed limitations of the player piano served to catalyse the composer to come up with ingenious solutions to the unique dilemmas posed by the instrument; Nancarrow incorporates the mechanistic, inhuman quality of the piano as a defining aspect of his music, invigorating its thin, lifeless timbre by constructing dense contrapuntal textures punctuated with jarring glissandi.

As such, there is a seductive tension lying at the core of Studies for Player Piano, a perpetual push and pull between man and machine, the expanse of the imagination and the limits of technology. It might be remarkable that Nancarrow was able to create such a rich and nuanced work isolated as he was from the artistic community, yet perhaps this is precisely the sort of music that can only be made in strict solitude. This work conforms to a logic of its own creation; its gaze is turned perpetually inwards, situated in an entirely distinct dimension. Despite its eccentricity, the music is never esoteric, instead Studies for Player Piano is shot through with Nancarrow’s infectious humour and wit: these pieces are sometimes bizarre, often baffling, yet always endearing and ultimately enthralling.

Below is a recording of the first volume of Studies for Player Piano accompanied by a brief listening guide.

In characteristically enigmatic fashion, Nancarrow organised his Studies for Player Piano into four volumes, each consisting of a seemingly random selection of pieces. To discuss the entirety of this work would be unrealistic in these pages, so the discussion below is limited to the first volume of studies, comprised of Studies No. 3, 20, 44 and 41.

Segmented into five sections and subtitled “Boogie-Woogie Suite”, ‘Study No. 3’ exemplifies Nancarrow’s early fascination with jazz and ragtime, creating vastly distorted versions of well-known forms. Whilst the study might not be as revolutionary as some of Nancarrow’s later pieces, it is certainly one of his most immediately rewarding.

Opening with only two voices in the texture, 3a initially seems like a conventional boogie-woogie, albeit sped up to an searingly fast tempo. However, the music soon leaves the realms of (relative) reality; additional layers are added in as the piece continues, culminating in an ecstatic, hyperactive swirl as a multitude of separate voices vie for primacy.

3b is more subdued with a coalescence of melodic lines winding around a walking bass line.

Like the previous movement, 3c is formed from a web of melodic lines layered atop a consistent bass presence. This music is somewhat more tentative and enigmatic than 3b however; listen for the thinning of the accumulating texture at 0:53 and 1:42.

This bluesy movement is considerably sparser than the preceding music, offering a fleeting point of respite amidst the formidable complexity elsewhere.

The study comes full-circle as 3d recalls the manic boogie-woogie of the opening movement, again increasing in density as it speeds to its conclusion.

‘Study No. 20’ is one of Nancarrow’s more austere pieces, layering successive blocks of single repeating notes to form a gradually shifting cloud of sound.

Subtitled “Aleatory Canon”, this study grew out of Nancarrow’s increasing frustration with his attempts to compose for two player pianos, finding it almost impossible to synchronise the machines satisfactorily. ‘Study No. 44’ is thus composed for two player pianos with the separate parts carefully calculated so that “everything, at any time, or any speed, would go together”. The piece opens with only one piano, joined at 0:54 by the second playing in a higher register.

‘Study No. 41’ is cast in three parts.

41a and 41b are both highly complex cannons for multiple voices; their skeletal constructions are punctuated with Nancarrow’s tradmark glissandi. Both build to frantic climaxes: 41a at around 5:00-6:00 and 41b at 3:45-4:30.

41c employs two player pianos, playing 41a and 41b simultaneously. The study opens with a sole piano playing 41a before the second enters at 1:24. The combination of the two furious climactic sections of the two previous movements (around 5:00-6:00) forms a thrillingly chaotic collision of sound.

The recordings above are available as part of a complete set of Nancarrow’s studies released by Wergo.

With his beguiling set of Piano Études (1985-2001), Hungarian composer György Ligeti displayed his deeply felt reverence for Nancarrow’s music, constructing a similarly labyrinthine network of gleefully playful pieces.

Artwork: Collection, Robert Rauschenberg

by Thomas May