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Circus Galop maximus
January 3, 2012 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Marc-André Hamelin composed Circus Galop for the player piano. Performing it is impossible for a mere pair of human hands, but two people have tried to fake it until they make it. Another has transcribed it (or half of it, perhaps) for one player. Often, people will run it through a MIDI sequencer of their choice, to make a lively animation. Some have built Arduino robots that perform it. But, in the end, the best medium for a work this insane is the humble, yet manic player piano (less manic, but clearer-sounding performance here). Hamelin himself has run his composition through one, managing to get his television host to start dancing as the closing credits fade out...
posted by Blazecock Pileon (34 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
About 30 seconds in it sounds just like a computer game crashing, with the whole audio-buffer-loop thing.
posted by NMcCoy at 5:22 PM on January 3, 2012


Hamelin - whom I would have liked to FPP myself - is beyond virtuoso. Is "virtuossimo" a word?

Here is his Grammy performance of one of the Godowsky studies of the Chopin etudes.

LIKE A BOSS.
posted by Trurl at 5:29 PM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, wow, someone mentioned this a little while ago and I hoped someone would FPP it. Awesome!
posted by griphus at 5:45 PM on January 3, 2012


Very fun post! As an ex-Montrealer, I've enjoyed following Hamlin's career.
posted by sfred at 5:53 PM on January 3, 2012


I'm trying to decide if, shorn of the technical HEY THIS IS UNPLAYABLE BY A HUMAN sweetness, this is actually a good piece of music. It is interesting but it feels like the aural equivalent of opening up Photoshop for the first time and putting LENS FLARES ON EVERYTHING.

The way the high-speed playing starts to transform the basic timbre of what we think of as "a piano" is cool, but it just keeps on deteriorating into atonal random plunkings of TWENTY! KEYS! AT! ONCE!!! that don't ever have their own structure to enjoy. Then it comes to a rousing finish... and comes back again, for one of the weakest endings I've heard in a long time.
posted by egypturnash at 5:54 PM on January 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


Holy crap. I wonder how someone with synesthesia would see this piece....
posted by astapasta24 at 5:56 PM on January 3, 2012


This is like the most manic Looney Tunes soundtrack ever. It made me laugh even without a cartoon attached, and now I want to chase somebody around with a giant rubber hammer.
posted by Quietgal at 6:04 PM on January 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


Holy crap. I wonder how someone with synesthesia would see this piece....

I direct your attention to the kind gentleman, over in the corner, bleeding from the eyes.
posted by Dark Messiah at 6:16 PM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Holy crap. I wonder how someone with synesthesia would see this piece....

Good question. I have slowly been working on a Scriabin front-page post, and he was notable for building compositions around sound and color.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:17 PM on January 3, 2012


Great post. I especially love the raining-notes piano player visualization. However, should Circus Galop prove to be too daunting for budding virtuosos, consider starting out with this more modest modern composition.
posted by bicyclefish at 6:21 PM on January 3, 2012


Paging Colin Nancarrow! (And, for Looney Tunes, Mr. Raymond Scott!)

Previously: Impossible Music, Interesting American Music, Electronica History.
posted by 0rison at 6:23 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holy crap. I wonder how someone with synesthesia would see this piece....

Or someone with Synthesia!
posted by Ian A.T. at 6:30 PM on January 3, 2012


Conlon... Nyancarrow.
posted by ovvl at 7:37 PM on January 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


The clips of Marc-André Hamelin playing Liszt with his own fingers is pretty crazy stuff.
posted by ovvl at 7:41 PM on January 3, 2012


Holy crap. I wonder how someone with synesthesia would see this piece....

I have synaesthesia and have recently consumed some fine baked goods, actually. So this is an interesting question.

On the one had, it was kind of unremarkable. It sounded like a super-complicated chiptune (there was at least one passage that I swear was in the original Final Fantasy.) But that's at least partly because of the player piano, which makes everything sound like it is made out of brightly-colored chips of plastic.

On the other hand, there was a pretty incredible depth of field going on there. I expect that with multi-instrument pieces, and this is neat in that in achieves that effect (sort of) on a single instrument. Managing to hit left and right and front and back was neat.

As for what it looked like... like a 3D equalizer, really. Multicolored (although the very first passage was actually orange, yellow, and green) but otherwise only complex in the number of voices, not so much any interesting tonal shapes.

It was an interesting listen, but nowhere near as overwhelming as, say, bluegrass. Flight of the Bumblebee is in a similar space in my head and I like it better.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:48 PM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


The way the high-speed playing starts to transform the basic timbre of what we think of as "a piano" is cool, but it just keeps on deteriorating into atonal random plunkings of TWENTY! KEYS! AT! ONCE!!! that don't ever have their own structure to enjoy.

I don't know if you read music (and few would be able to read something like this in its full depth) but you should see the version of Circus Galop synced with the sheet music. Yes, it has an obvious structure, nothing is random.

I remember when this came up in the contrapuntal nyancat FPP the other day, I followed some online info threads about Nancarrow. It said that he discovered there is a "natural language" of the player piano, there are things it does better than any other instrument, like the high speed glissando, massive chords with dozens of notes that no ten fingers could play, and subtle changes in tempo. A lot of Circus Galop is composed of those elements. There are parts that may seem random, but follow the sheet music and you'll see there are separate voices, and very subtle timing changes. And the ending is marked "A Fatal Collision."
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:22 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's fitting that the guy who can play anything would write something that even he can't play. hamelin is a beast - who can touch him? steven hough maybe?
posted by facetious at 8:26 PM on January 3, 2012


you should see the version of Circus Galop synced with the sheet music.

It makes sense with piano roll notation.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:49 PM on January 3, 2012


I could see the structure pretty clearly when I watched the 'lively animation' link. And there are some parts where it just starts looking like the output of a random number generator to me.

It may look visually cool on the sheet music, but then again, so does a sonogram of the second track on the Aphex Twin album 'Windowlicker'.

This is one of three layer piano compositions by Hamlein. I can't find a date for anything besides Galop, but I would not be surprised if it's the first. It feels like someone fooling around with a new toy rather than making a serious work.
posted by egypturnash at 9:02 PM on January 3, 2012


Holy crap. I wonder how someone with synesthesia would see this piece....

If you asked ten of them you would get ten different impressions. There's no standard codex of musical sensation among those with it.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:24 PM on January 3, 2012


Yeah, complexity does not necessitate excellence.

I remember reading some history of player piano music. Apparently most of the early ones were pneumatically actuated and writers quickly figured out many different ways how to hack the air actuation with their rolls in ways more sophisticated than just hitting 30 keys at once, eg they would cut fractional holes to get partial actuation for soft notes or something.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:48 PM on January 3, 2012


tesseractive is sitting next to me listening to the player piano video. I've got the TV on mute, and I've got to say, this song makes for a profoundly unsettling match for anything that comes on screen.

Another couple minutes of this and I'm going to start to think my dog wants me to kill the president.

and I don't even have a dog
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 9:55 PM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Colin Nancarrow was featured on very first episode of Bullseye.
posted by chrchr at 10:09 PM on January 3, 2012


Somehow reminds me of that famous story about Mozart's impossible piano piece.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:15 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


As good a place as any to link to "Stop Player, Joke #4".
posted by chavenet at 10:34 PM on January 3, 2012


Conlon... Nyancarrow.

Nyan-attributed.
posted by speicus at 11:18 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Paging Mia Culpa . . . Prof. Fingerfehler?
posted by 0rison at 6:28 AM on January 4, 2012


It makes sense with piano roll notation.

Right, but that is essentially just the keys laid out horizontally, scrolling past vertically in the time axis. You can essentially see the same thing just by watching the keys as the player piano as the piece plays.

One thing you get in the sheet music is the separate voices, as the composer envisioned them. It's really not clear in the piano roll which notes are part of which voice, but it's very clear in the sheet music. Most of the piece uses just 3 or 4 voices, with an occasional 5th or 6th for some secondary effects. Then near the end, there are new voices added, 8, 10, finally 12, some of the voices are complex chords, but some are just single notes that you'd be unable to pick out of the tune without the composer's directions.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:08 AM on January 4, 2012


Hit ALL the keys!
posted by ostranenie at 7:26 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The upright with the front case off upped the believability factor for me. It's one thing to see keys move, it's another to see the hammers banging it out. I've watched it three times, and the asynchronous sections have my sense of timing and beat turned completely inside out. Thanks!
posted by halfbuckaroo at 10:15 AM on January 4, 2012


Very impressive! Thanks, BP. Another full-on, unplayable-by-humans player-piano composition is Rytis Mažulis’ Clavier of Pure Reason.
posted by misteraitch at 11:11 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


After the first thirty seconds of the video of the player piano, I decided that the whole thing had degenerated into key-mashing mush. But then, bored, i decided to watch the midi animation. Suddenly, it made (a sort of) sense. The underlying structure was too cacophonous and complex for my ears to pick out, but with the visual assist of what was essentially a very large player piano roll scrolling down in front of me...I get it. Sort of. Enough to appreciate that it's *not* just mush, at least, and is in fact a thorough composition.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 1:56 PM on January 4, 2012


The first time I ever heard Conlon Nancarrow was unexpectedly on late night College radio: "Oh, some piano stuff... hey, WTF?" A real surprise moment.
posted by ovvl at 2:52 PM on January 4, 2012


This is a great piece, and like Quietgal I'd love to see what sort of cartoon could be synced with it. But for chrissakes, does every YouTube video of it have to have some variation of "LOL ASIANS AMIRITE" as the top comment?
posted by Rhaomi at 1:28 PM on January 8, 2012


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