Monday, 25 June 2012

Rum Punches - the Music of Conlon Nancarrow

American or Mexican? Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) spent the last 57 years of his life in Mexico, 41 of them as a Mexican citizen. Either way, Nancarrow is a one-off composer whose stature should make any country proud to claim him.

Nancarrow's music has thankfully shot to prominence in the last forty years, partly after he was acclaimed as the greatest living composer by another great (then) living composer, Ligeti. (Ligeti was amazed to discover that Nancarrow's Study No.20 resembled his own Monument). Music lovers of various hues - lovers of complexity, minimalists and John Cagers, mainstream contemporary types, avant-gardists, others - all began eagerly devouring his music.

From 1951 to 1983 Nancarrow (working in isolation) wrote only for the player piano - also known at the pianolo - in an attempt to realise music that he felt would be impossible for live musicians to perform. With a degree of patient that is quite staggering, he would spend months punching out by hand all the notes on a roll that would, say, comprise a single, four-minute piece. The player piano was a mechanical instrument that could play, as perfectly as the composer intended (without any of the imperfections of a human performance), layer upon layer of independent lines. It could help create music of unprecedented complexity, setting those lines in inhumanly precise and recondite ratios to each other, allowing ultra-sophisticated rhythms that are impossible to notate and creating patterns of cross-rhythms that had never previously been possible to perform. Any sequence of notes was now possible.The instrument could also play music at unheard-of speeds. Massive, perfectly coordinated chords that are beyond a pair of hands and lightning-fast glissandi became possible. As for those lines, counterpoint is one of the main essences of Nancarrow's music. At the heart of his style stand canons. Fiendishly complex canons. The player piano was at their command. 

All this may sound daunting and experimental but this is music that brims with exuberance and is often great fun to hear. It invariably sounds right. I know I'm not the only listener to gasp and laugh out loud many times while listening to Nancarrow's pieces, and I don't doubt for one second that that's just the way he would have wanted it. It can sometimes sound as zany as a Looney Tunes cartoon. It is, simply put, some of the most life-affirming music ever written. 

The early studies often have a strong feel of popular music and jazz. (Nancarrow had been a jazz trumpeter). The world of Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Earl Hines is often a felt presence. Boogie-woogie reigns supreme at times. As time passes, however, Nancarrow's studies lose a lot of their jazziness and become more abstract-sounding, either more Neo-Classical (Bach, Stravinksky, Hindemith) or more pointillist (Webern). They don't, however, become any less engaging.  

As recent virtuosos exceeded the virtuosity of earlier generations, Nancarrow found that some of his 'impossible-for-humans' pieces weren't impossible to perform after all. (Some, however, always will be. They are simply too fast). Also, people began arranging his pieces for ensembles (ranging from two pianos to orchestras). Those by Yvar Mikhashoff were highly influential and remain especially beguiling. (A healthy selection of them can be heard here). I urge you to give them a listen. Click on any number and see what happens!

Studies for player piano
1, 2, 3a, 3b, 3c, 3d, 3e, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 1011, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40, 42, 43, 44, 45a, 45b, 45c, 46, 47, 48c49a, 49b, 49c, 50

Other player piano pieces
For Yoko (1992-3)

Towards the end of his life the composer even began writing for conventional instruments (and living people) again. His early years as a composer, naturally, involved writing for nothing else.  

Early Works for Human Beings
Prelude & Blues for piano (1935) 
Toccata for violin and piano (1935) 
Sonatina for piano (1941) 
Trio No. 1 for clarinet, bassoon, and piano (1942) 
Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra (1943) 

Late Works for Human Beings 
Tango? (1983) 
Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra (1986) 

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