Friday, June 29, 2018

Sonic Fantasies: The Incredible Future Music of Conlon Nancarrow

Conlan Nancarrow, composing in his Mexico City home. (Photo: John Fago)

Click here to experience the full Volumes I and II of Conlan Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano.

In 2015 Andrew Katzenstein created a grand profile of the marvelously obscure American composer Conlon Nancarrow for The New York Review of Books, one that firmly situated him where he certainly belonged: in the upper pantheon of experimental musicians and composers if the 20th century. The title he used (or perhaps his editors imposed), however, the Prince of the Player Piano, somehow struck me as diminishing his true stature by making his sound like a novelty (someone who wrote music to be played automatically like a toy) rather than what he, in my estimation, truly was (an avant-garde composer whose vision was so rigorous that live human beings couldn’t possibly reproduce his intentions).

Granted, the newly reopened Whitney Museum of Art in New York was then hosting an eleven-day festival celebrating the work of this stunning American expatriate (he fled to Mexico at one point to avoid the repercussions of his early Communist leanings) and Katzenstein also shared his appreciation for those innovative and complex “studies” for the pseudo-automated instrumentation which drew on “styles as disparate as jazz and serialism and made use of multiple tempos played simultaneously.” A slightly better title may have been that of the documentary film about Nancarow from 2012, Virtuoso of the Player Piano. But there we again get mired in pitfall which in my opinion mistakenly positions him as a novelty.

Rather than emphasize the novel instrumentation he utilized, I’ve long believed  ever since I encountered a vinyl pressing of what I prefer to call his sonatas, rather than studies, in 1977 – that it’s better to focus on his compositions themselves, especially since recently one was actually able to be performed live on stage by a living and breathing human being. That great film, which debuted on the centenary of his birth, featured filmed performances by his lovely machines (generally modified Bosendorfer Ampico equipment), as well as interviews with people who knew or worked with him, most notably the human being who pulled off what so many of us thought to be impossible over the years: an actual concert performance.

Nancarrow in close-up. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Conlon Nancarrow, 1912-1997, was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant for what documentary director Jim Greeson termed “his amazing compositions for player piano – the only known instrument which could perform his rhythmically astonishing music back in the 1940’s when he first started out in music.” When his friends asked him if he thought such a popular recognition might make him feel compromised or like he was “selling out,” he is reported to have answered that, on the contrary, this freedom would actually prevent him from ever needing to sell out at all. In other words, just as he always did, he would go his own way, by himself.

So I’ll stick with my own title for appreciating this incredible titan of revolutionary Yankee composition whose music picked up where the great Charles Ives left off, Sonic Fantasies: The Incredible Future Music of Conlon Nancarrow. It should be noted that I didn’t call it “futuristic music,” something that sounds like it might have come from the future, bur rather “future music,” as in something that actually did come from the future and actually still resides there. That was the initial impact on my senses and nervous system forty years ago when I dropped the stylus down into the groove of that old 33-1/3 album unsuspectingly and was almost picked up and flung across the room by the torrential downpour and upsurge of the notes that cascaded through space and time.

So, if you forget for the moment what instrumentation or orchestration they were supposedly composed for, and instead simply let your ears listen to what they’re hearing, I think your experience will be more in keeping with what this brilliant innovator intended. He created music that was meant to be heard by humans but not necessarily played by them, and in so doing he either approximated or predicted the rise of what today we might call computerized and synthesized music. He programmed it manually by punching tiny perforations in the unspooling rolls that served as his “musicians.” Some have even called his music "mathematics gone mad."

Nancarrow composing one of his works for "prepared" piano, akin to the works of fellow American inventor John Cage. (Photo: Getty)

It wasn’t only, as Katzenstein implied, that Nancarrow explored the limits of the player piano with staggering imagination and persistence; it was rather that he was exploring the limits of music and sound. His equipment was incidental. Even before he left America for a kind of splendid exile in 1940, he was already being drawn to the infinite technical potential of this machine, which was able to play faster and with more virtuosity than the most gifted pianist. He often even punched the holes with a magnifying glass, in order to attain the softest sounds imaginable, sounds which were, in fact, wholly beyond our imaginations. Nancarrow had played in a few jazz bands while young. He also studied with Roger Sessions, who had contributed to the acceptance of European modernist styles, as well as Walter Piston, among whose other students was Elliot Carter, another American modernist master. (Carter's abstract music celebrated a similar serial atonality to Nancarrow’s, but without his stunning innovations in the realm of a future technology, which would later be explored by Ben Johnston and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others.) His works, it is safe to say, anticipated computer-generated music by about thirty years or so, and also paralleled the aleatory (chance) operations of John Cage. For many years, Nancarrow lived on his own island, creatively speaking, until he started to be championed by other modernist experimenters such as the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti, who once claimed that Nancarrow was the most important composer of the late 20th century.

I not only agree wholeheartedly, but I also detect some startling stylistic overlaps with the kind of dramatic and melancholy works that Ligeti himself made, sharing a sonic spirit but without the drastic reach into the future that was being propelled by Nancarrow’s breathtakingly multi-dimensional methods of construction. Just seek out any of what I call Nancarrow’s sonatas for piano, and what most other people call his studies for player piano, such as his early piece, #14, or the later #37, and especially #40b, and you will see what I mean (or at least, that is, your astonished ears will hear it). Then plunge forward into #3a or #21 (also known as Canon X) and you’ll potentially be hooked as I first was forty years ago. It’s kind of like listening to a Jackson Pollock painting for your ears.

One of the best examples of my contention that he was creating music for instrumentation that didn’t yet exist but eventually would can be demonstrated by the fact, as Robert Willey has pointed out in one of his symposia, that one can edit and arrange Nancarrow’s compositions for disklavier, synclavier and synthesizers (equipment used to great effect by another American visionary, Frank Zappa, in the late 80s) with relative ease. As Willey pointed out, “Interest has been shown over the last three decades in realizing the compositions of Nancarrow with a variety of technologies. Work is now underway to edit data scanned from the rolls and to arrange it for the Yamaha synthesizer.” Willey went on to accept the common designation that Nancarrow was potentially “the grandfather of computer music" long before computers even existed, due to his method of composition, in which “he generated a list of instructions for a machine to realize” and that the specification of notes on player piano rolls is similar to the representation of “data” in MIDI, where codes messages are time-stamped and stored in the memory of a sequencer: “The decoupling of data and instrument in Nancarrow’s process makes MIDI a natural environment to study and realize his compositions.” 

Nancarrow with Gyorgy Ligeti, right, in 1988. (Photo: Gisele Gronemeyer)

In 2017, Seth Horvitz did a splendid profile for the Red Bull Academy of the grandmaster of musical mayhem in which he ideally identified Nancarrow’s choice of instrumentation for his thought-provoking works as “time machines.” I would add that, even more than the equipment he utilized as the delivery system, his music itself was also a time machine, an aesthetic device for stripping the senses of their customary temporal guidelines and setting us adrift on a sea of pure sound. The Whitney Museum retrospective I referenced at the outset captured his essence perfectly when they called it “Anywhere In Time: A Conlon Nancarrow Festival.”

Horvitz vividly described his initial exposure fifty years earlier: “Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1962. A large wooden machine with a row of black and white buttons sits alone on stage, waiting for a cue to begin the performance. The 50 year old Arkansas-born composer named Conlon Nancarrow is presenting his first public solo concert after spending fifteen years working with this strange instrument in self-imposed isolation in Mexico City. He steps up to the contraption and attaches a paper roll punched full of holes to a spindle above the buttons. After a while, something magical begins to happen. At first, the resultant rhythm is a trainwreck of the wildest proportions, but then the notes begin to converge and become a coherent, undulating cascade of sound, as if time itself had splintered into several dimensions, then folded back on itself to become one. Then, before the audience has much time to comprehend this fleeting moment of unity, the piece comes to an abrupt stop. What just happened? Nancarrow steps up to the stage again, inserts another roll and another piece begins. He repeats this process about twenty five times before ending the concert. As the audience applauds enthusiastically, Nancarrow gestures toward the machine, diverting their praise to his virtuosos performer.”

What had just happened? The future had suddenly arrived for a short stay; the future came crashing into the auditorium that day. But not some clever and creative artist’s privately imagined evocation of a potential future . . . no, it was the actual future, the future we now occupy, that he happily unleashed on unsuspecting concertgoers that day in 1962. Somewhere else on the planet earth at the same time, a pop group named The Beatles was releasing a song called “Love Me Do.” The fact that both these events can take place at the same time is precisely the kind of overwhelming synchronicity that makes life worth living. Justin Davidson has described what I call Nancarrow’s Sonic Fantasies in what I think is probably the finest and most evocative way yet: “The fitting centre is an inanimate object cranking out some of the most weirdly human music that an American composer ever wrote.” Hear, hear!

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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