From a 2004 Event at Slought

Conlon Nancarrow (1912 – 1997) was reputedly frustrated by the limitations of human performers, specifically by their inability to handle complex rhythms. “As long as I’ve been writing music I’ve been dreaming of getting rid of the performers,” he said in an interview. Additionally, the variability of human performance bothered him: “A painting stays the same forever. The same is true of other works of art. But somehow music is supposed to be different all the time.” To experiment with the interaction of the music, performer, and audience, we present Nancarrow’s music for self-playing player piano alongside arrangements of these pieces for human piano 4-hands performance. In addition, works for solo piano by Nancarrow will be performed.

Recognized worldwide as one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century, Conlon Nancarrow began composing exclusively for the player piano in the late 1940s. He studied composition with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions. His musical collaborators included Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland. Nancarrow’s piano works span several volumes of studies (published by Frog Peak Music and Schott Musik International) and are influenced by blues, jazz, and mathematical proportion studies. The complete Studies have been recorded on the Wergo label. In addition to his player piano works (and concerto for player piano), Nancarrow also composed both solo and ensemble instrumental music for human performance.

The Transcriptions
Supposedly “un-playable” by humans, the studies for player piano demand both extremely large keyboard span at any one time as well as independently capable hands in order to fully voice the many nested rhythmic structures. While these compositions were originally in piano roll format, some of them have been published as sheet music by Soundings Press. These transcriptions by Fisher are based on these published versions. In transcribing these selected pieces for piano 4-hands, many of the issues can be sufficiently dealt with. There are, however, layers of detail in the player piano compositions that cannot be achieved with perfect accuracy by human performance. For practical performance considerations, some of this detail is inaudible. For instance, in Study No. 20, a study in durations, the transcriptions instruct the pianists to be faithful to the onset of each note, rather than the durations for which they are sustained. In Study No. 26, a canon in seven voices, the enormous span of some of the chords exceed the abilities of even two pianists, thus some of the chords are rolled. While rolling of the chords technically destroys the intended simultaneity of the voices by playing some of the notes out of order, it is also an expressive technique that highlights the extreme range and weight of the particular passages. Though the transcriptions do not “equal” the studies, they provide another view of the studies, emphasizing the lyrical freedom, energy, and humor in these numerically precise works.

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