Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997)
Complete Studies for Player Piano
Realized by Jürgen Hocker with Francis Bowdery, Jörg Borchardt and Robert Rakowitz
rec. 2005, Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal, Germany
MDG 645 2272-2 [5 CDs: 320]

Conlon Nancarrow was one of those maverick American composers – Charles Ives, Harry Partch and John Cage were others – who worked outside the musical mainstream and whose legacy has been correspondingly hard to absorb. In his youth he played the trumpet in a jazz band and also studied music in Cincinnati and Boston. He joined the Communist party and fought in the Spanish Civil War on the republican side, as a member of the Abraham Lincoln brigade of volunteers. On returning to the USA, he found it difficult to get a passport and moved to Mexico, where he was based for the rest of his life, taking Mexican citizenship in 1956. There, in almost complete isolation, he created the work for which he is remembered, these Studies for Player Piano.

Nancarrow was interested in rhythmic complications, in which the same material was played against itself at a different tempo. Unlike the polyrhythms of Scriabin, he wanted exact performance of the resulting complicated interweaving lines, something which became impossible for a performer to deliver accurately. He took up the player piano, a machine which had been used to record a (human) piano performance on a punched roll and used this to reproduce the performance. Nancarrow obtained the equipment to punch the rolls by hand himself and so to create works which are unperformable by live performers. This was a slow business: he could need months of work for five minutes of music. However, over the course of several decades he realised around fifty studies using this technique. (I say around fifty, because they are actually numbered 1 to 49, but there are a, b, and c versions of several.) He acquired a second piano and player piano and wrote for each of them and sometimes for the two together. There are also some associated works, not formally part of the set of Studies, which are included on the final disc.

The idiom is best understood by beginning one’s listening with volume 2 of this set, and with study 13. This is the first of a set of seven canonic studies which begin with simple canons and gradually introduce more and more canonic imitations at increasingly complicated tempo relations to the original. Each study tends to begin with simple notes and, as the complications increase, the texture gets thicker and thicker. Sometimes Nancarrow adds thick chords and glissandi (scored chromatically, unlike the glissandi which pianists are occasionally asked to play, which are either on the white or on the black notes exclusively) and writing for player piano means there is no need to restrict the work to what two hands can manage. From study 21 he adds acceleration and deceleration to his techniques, possibly at around the same time that Elliott Carter did the same thing.

Nancarrow has a real gift for melodies of a jazzy nature and can be quite witty. I have noted a number of studies as working out really well as compositions. These include 8, 14, 21, 24, 36, 37, 42 and 48. Some of them are intriguing because of the complexity of the tempo ratios involved. In study 40, for example, the ratio is that of the transcendental numbers e and π. (A transcendental number is one which is not the root of any integer polynomial.) In study 41, the tempo relations are even more complex. Moreover, this study exists in three forms, of which a is for Nancarrow’s first player piano, b for the second, and c for the two together, synchronised. A number of the studies are in this threefold form. Of course, these complications cannot be disentangled by the ears, but that is not the point: the pieces demonstrate the virtuosity of the compositional technique.

These rhythmic complications are the main interest of the studies. To pursue it, Nancarrow sacrificed many qualities which the rest of us find desirable in music, particularly piano music, such as clear melodies, a rich harmonic language, a variety of formal structures and much else. He liked a clear, hard percussive piano sound, and modified both his pianos to achieve this. There is virtually no use of the sustaining pedal. He himself said ‘I’ve discovered a little musical niche, but I believe I’ve explored it well.’ Others have been more complimentary, and the booklet – on which I have drawn – says the Studies are ‘regarded by many as the Well-Tempered Clavier of the Twentieth Century.’ In particular, György Ligeti said Nancarrow’s music was: ‘”the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives . . . something great and important for all music history! His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed, but at the same time emotional . . . for me it’s the best music of any composer living today.” I am not so sure: for me, it is intriguing, but it explores a very narrow world, though it explores it deeply. I find the studies very fatiguing to listen to and made a point of hearing only a few at a time in preparing this review. In fact, I wonder whether the main importance of these works is indeed their influence on Ligeti, whose own set of piano Études is undoubtedly a masterpiece and, though ferociously difficult, has entered the piano repertoire.

The recording is a real labour of love, and far outclasses previous recordings such as the Wergo ones of 1988, which I once possessed and found quite impossible to listen to, so harsh was the piano sound (review). This recording is the brainchild of Jürgen Hocker, who knew Nancarrow well, obtained pianos of the same or equivalent models to those of the composer, modified them according to his wishes, made exact and corrected replicas of the original piano rolls, used them in Ampico player piano mechanisms of the right kind and used computer technology to synchronise the player pianos in the studies involving two instruments. He worked with MDG to make sympathetic recordings. These were made in 2005, and there is no explanation of why it has taken so long for them to be issued. Nevertheless, we have here a rare example of a recording which can rightly be called definitive.

However, in this there is a danger. The lifeblood of classical music is surely the fact that it is open to new interpretations by different performers. Even when the composer is the performer or the work is recorded under his direction, as with recordings by Stravinsky or Britten, there is a place for new interpreters. Meanwhile, with those works which exist in only one version, such as Varèse’s Poème électronique or Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, you can listen to them a few times and then there is no more to be done. There is no role for a performer. I therefore find it interesting that some performers have made arrangements of some of Nancarrow’s studies for live performance and some of these have been recorded, though I have not yet heard any of these versions. Still, if you want to know what the fuss is all about, you need this set. It is not going to be bettered.

Stephen Barber

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