Impossible Music
February 15, 2010 2:55 PM   Subscribe

A favorite of John Cage and Gyorgy Ligeti, the latter describing his music as "so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed but at the same time emotional...the best of any composer living today," Conlon Nancarrow's musical ideas were nevertheless too complex and technically demanding for human performers, and his political ideas too radical and leftist for McCarthy-era America. Expatriated to Mexico, the Texarkana-born avant-gardeist lived most of his life in isolation, in a cluttered, dusty studio surrounded by records, piles of books, empty Vodka bottles, newspapers, cigarette cartons, and the tools of his trade: 2 old player pianos and a custom-built piano roll press.

Conlon Nancarrow wrote everything from jazz to symphonic music but he is best known for his 50 Studies for Player Piano. Each piece was hand-punched into a player-piano roll by Nancarrow himself (later with the help of an assistant), a difficult process that could take over a year. The Studies explore temporal dissonance, with multiple meters layered atop one, clashing and synchronizing at breakneck speed.

In the 1980's Nancarrow was rediscovered and enjoyed international recognition. But he never regained his United States citizenship, refusing to sign a statement claiming he was "young and foolish" to embrace Communism. He died in Mexico in 1997.
posted by swift (16 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Previously in a few musical threads.
posted by swift at 2:59 PM on February 15, 2010

Nice post. I love Nancarrow's work. He was so far ahead of his time.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:02 PM on February 15, 2010

Ah, I love Nancarrow. Recently came across The Complete Works, Volume 1 on vinyl, and it's awesome. A lot of his stuff doesn't just sound like it's beyond human capabilities, but machine capabilities as well - the pianos sound like they're going to collapse under the sheer pressure any second.
posted by anazgnos at 3:07 PM on February 15, 2010

nice. He's a perennial favorite around here. He is so very, very cool (though his music is most certainly not on par with Ligeti, but how humble of him to say so...)

Great Post!
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:10 PM on February 15, 2010

I'm also a huge fan of Nancarrow. Great post!
posted by ob at 3:11 PM on February 15, 2010

Although [Philip Glass] took great pains to erase the human element of his pieces, one of the great satisfactions of listening to his more demanding pieces is thinking about the poor bastards who had to play it, and the very rare performance nuance that sneaks in emphasizes the real human accomplishment.

Digital recording and editing were probably a godsend in the mind of the "pure" composer, in that they allow literally "perfect" transcriptions to be recorded, but I remain more impressed by music actually performed by people. Raymond Scott used to pine for a machine that could play his compositions, and even made a crude electro-mechanical sequencer to play some backing parts for tape recordings, because he was frustrated by the struggling of his band to play to his exacting standards. As it turns out, the struggle is one of the most engaging parts of a Raymond Scott tune. I shudder to think how awful his music would be if actually performed by samplers in perfect lockstep.

Conlon Nancarrow embraced the mechanical player piano for his compositions, but he had to adapt his notation and composition to the quirks of the piano, and this is where the tension between composition and performance displays itself and makes his music worth hearing. Take a look at his scores sometime -- they're like somebody shot two barrels of birdshot at a page of staff rule. If he could just type it into a sequencer and have it come out like water, I doubt he would have come up with any of his little temporal innovations like the constant accelerando, or the simultaneous regressing/accellerating lines. In particular, I wonder at what he called his "X-shape," where two themes played simultaneously; one playing forward accelerating in tempo, while another played in reverse, de-celerating, creating a central eddy motif where the two lines synchronize for some time.

This "X-shape" must have resulted from the discovering that he could punch a roll and then re-thread it in reverse to punch a counterpart composition. Perhaps he accidentally threaded a roll without rewinding it one day. These little epiphanies are only possible if your band or performance device once-in-a-while occasions accidents, and I am grateful Nancarrow did his work before midi sequencers and digital pianos were available.
- Steve Albini
posted by anazgnos at 3:23 PM on February 15, 2010 [16 favorites]

Huh, surprised and pleased by the Albini quotation. He's absolutely right, too. The material substrate of your intellectual work can have real consequences for the work you do and discoveries you make.
posted by kenko at 3:55 PM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, Steve Albini nailed it. I've always had a lot of respect for those composers that acknowledge the tension between the musical idea and the actual sound object that results from the process of writing, distribution, and the subsequent interpretation and performance. Nancarrow's compositions seem to do exactly that even as they eliminate the human performer entirely.
posted by invitapriore at 4:29 PM on February 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Those hothouses of experiment, nurseries of a whole generation of British rock stars - and "very peculiar places" as Eno himself concedes - were, in the middle '60s, awash with weirdness. Avant-garde composers, cold-shouldered by stuffy music colleges, were employed by art schools instead. Self-expression and conceptual doodling were all the rage. Anything went. The Portsmouth Sinfonia for example, one of Eno's early interests, were a full concert orchestra made up of improvising musical illiterates. "Avant-garde music," he suggests, in his most persuasively metaphorical way, "is a sort of research music. You're glad someone's done it but you don't necessarily want to listen to it. It's similar to the way I'm very happy people have gone to the North Pole. It extends my concept of the planet to know it exists, but I don't want to live there, or even go there actually. But it's a boundary condition."

I guess the exceptions are when on one of your far away journeys you discover a beautiful and temperate climate perfect for habitation. The land of Conlon Nancarrow.
posted by VikingSword at 4:46 PM on February 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

First O'Hara, now Nancarrow. Oh, Metafilter, how could I not forgive you for a being a day late with these lovely and thoughtful Valentine's Day gifts. *Smooch*
posted by treepour at 4:55 PM on February 15, 2010

There's a wonderful essay on hearing and performing Nancarrow in Cabinet. "Latitudes of expressiveness on the one hand, and the trance or zone cultivated by performers of minimalist music (like that of Philip Glass or Steve Reich) on the other, are equally forbidden. That seems to be the pleasure: an unusually strict, not at all mystical submission; self-forgetting without transcendence. Now, as we know, machines don’t have consciousness. That is the difference between them and us. But if they did, perhaps this exceptional alertness, which is nonetheless interdicted both from expression and ecstasy, might be what their consciousness is like. And perhaps that would be a feeling we could want to have."
posted by finnb at 6:46 PM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

anazgnos - fantastic quotation.

composers that acknowledge the tension between the musical idea and the actual sound object

I must take this rare opportunity, as he is somewhat of an exemplar in this regard, to drop Brian Ferneyhough for a second fucking time (!!) in MetaFilter! Albeit taking a different approach than Nancarrow took, Ferneyhough created ideas of music that were blatantly impossible to actually produce; and this tension is the richness of the thing.*

I couldn't agree more with Albini that with the loop, or the mass mover tool on Finale, or 300-take recording, something great has been lost.

*was admittedly tempted to say, in the case of ferneyhough, the 'sperm of the art splooge.'
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:35 PM on February 15, 2010

Lutoslawski, I almost mentioned Ferneyhough as an example on the opposite end! It's true. I have to disagree that digital recording and composition techniques are a net loss, if it's that what you're implying, because they privilege certain new approaches even as they discourage others.
posted by invitapriore at 7:51 PM on February 15, 2010

VikingSword: "The Portsmouth Sinfonia for example, one of Eno's early interests, were a full concert orchestra made up of improvising musical illiterates."

The Portsmouth Sinfonia did not an improvise at all that I know of, and were not on the whole musical illiterates. They rehearsed, and had two ground rules: you had to try your best, and you could not be skilled in your instrument. Many of the members were musically skilled but playing an instrument they were unfamiliar with.

Regarding the Albini quote, and general questions of limitations, I am reminded of Noh theater, where if I understand correctly one of the primary considerations is the amount of effort that a performer needs to be exerting while performing, and the idea that that effort, that struggle, is visible to an audience and what makes the performance engaging. So much of musical performance, in particular Rock performance, is about conveying to the audience an impression that what you are doing is hard work.
posted by idiopath at 8:14 PM on February 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had no idea how many challenges Nancarrow faced in his life. I fell in love with his music after I started looking for more Margaret Leng Tan performances when I heard a recording of her playing of Toby Twining's Nightmare Rag on a toy piano. Here she is playing Nancarrow's Three 2-Part Studies on TWO toy pianos.

"When I first embarked on my career as a toy pianist in 1995, I was ferreting around for pieces that would lend themselves to the toy piano. I had always thought Nancarrow would be a good bet given the toy piano's aggressively percussive nature. When I acquired two toy pianos with distinctly separate personalities, it seemed inevitable that the Three 2-Part Studies had to be heard on them. Even more formidable than the task of transcribing them was the feat of mastering the transcription."
posted by winna at 5:21 AM on February 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have to disagree that digital recording and composition techniques are a net loss, if it's that what you're implying, because they privilege certain new approaches even as they discourage others.

Oh no, I agree with you there. Not a net loss, for sure, but like anything they are often abused in a certain way and passed off as something of higher value than they were. But certainly there are people who use these techniques in very novel, interesting and artful ways.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:50 AM on February 18, 2010

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