Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Case of Conlon Nancarrow

Conlon Nancarrow is one of the more fascinating 20th century composers, not only because of the nature of his music which is, as almost no music is, truly unique. His career, or rather non-career, is almost as interesting as his music. Sparked by a festival of his music hosted by the new Whitney Museum in New York, Nancarrow is attracting quite a lot of attention these days. An example is an extended article on him in the New York Review of Books by Andrew Katzenstein titled "The Prince of the Player Piano." And this is where his uniqueness comes from: most of his compositions were incised directly on player piano rolls and are not humanly possible to play. In this, they are more closely related to computer, electronic or synthesized music than to traditionally composed music. Here is an introduction to Nancarrow from the article:
Nancarrow’s interest in the player piano arose partly out of necessity, as there was a scarcity of conservatory-trained musicians in Mexico City, where he lived for decades in self-imposed exile until his death in 1993. But even before he left the United States in 1940, he was drawn to the technical possibilities of the machine, which can play faster and with greater precision than the most virtuosic pianist. Nancarrow explored the limits of the player piano with staggering imagination and persistence, diligently punching piano rolls by hand and often with the aid of a magnifying glass. He lived in obscurity and near-isolation for many years before his work was championed by prominent composers such as the Hungarian experimentalist György Ligeti, who claimed that Nancarrow was the most important composer of the late twentieth century. Only after his fame grew did Nancarrow again write works—still highly demanding—for human musicians.
Born in 1912 in Texarkana, Nancarrow played trumpet in jazz bands during his youth. He studied composition in Boston with Roger Sessions, who helped popularize European modernism in America, and the neoclassicist Walter Piston, whose other students included Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. Drawn to Communism while in Boston, Nancarrow later joined the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War and, upon his return to the US, was unable to get his passport renewed because of his political beliefs. He settled in Mexico City instead and there began his work for player piano.
 The excellently-researched article, while very informative, also raises a few questions. As an expatriate myself, living in Mexico like Nancarrow, I am quite sure that Mexico City, even in the 1940s, did not lack in "conservatory-trained musicians", though they may have had no interest in playing the music of Nancarrow as their tastes were likely too conservative. Also, I suspect there is more to the story of his leaving the US than is related here. I have known people who were drawn to Communism and fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side and returned without problems to the US--went on and fought in the Second World War as well. So, I think it is time for a neutral examination of the life and works of Nancarrow that will delve into these sorts of questions.

The article has some interesting details about the complex mathematical relationships between the voices in some of the studies for player piano. They are often mensuration canons in which the two voices have a mathematical relationship that is not only impossible for a human to play, but also likely impossible for a human to hear as we are not used to even trying to hear this sort of relationship:
The tempo ratio in the twelve-voice Study #37 is 150:160 5⁄7:168 3⁄4:180:187 1⁄2:200:210:225:240:250:262 1⁄2:281 1⁄4, which is derived from the frequencies of notes in a chromatic scale.
Let's have a listen to Study 37, to hear how that works out:

Well, ok. Not sure I am hearing all 12 voices. It would be useful and interesting to have a transcription of this in conventional notation, but that is likely impossible. The lack of one is a serious obstacle to any theorists sitting down and actually analyzing this music. Until someone does I'm not sure I would simply accept all the things said about this music as being true.

However, it is well worth your while to read the whole article and listen to the several clips that it contains.

There is a lot remaining to be thought and said about the music of Conlon Nancarrow, not least its aesthetic burden and social and political import. Despite the advocacy of prominent figures like György Ligeti, the position or status of the music of Nancarrow is still very much a question mark. One index of this is the fact that Richard Taruskin deftly sidesteps the issue entirely by completely ignoring Nancarrow in his mammoth Oxford History of Western Music. There is no entry in the index for Nancarrow, but there is considerable space given to that other American eccentric, Harry Partch.

Time to move on from the booster/discovery stage to the sober evaluation stage, I suspect.


Anonymous said...

Quite often you write about the need for high quality music criticism that enhances music appreciation.Recently i came across this good piece:it uses a basic math concept of arithmetic/geometric progression to critique music.Even without any knowledge of music theory,i was able to get the gist of the critic's contrast of Reich & Dessner.


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much, John, and welcome to the Music Salon. Yes, that is an interesting piece of pretty good music criticism. Music is like wine, you often get the best sense of it when you can compare different samples. At a wine tasting, you get a much better perspective on the differences between wines by tasting them side by side. Listening to Bryce Dessner alongside Steve Reich seems to have had a similar result.

I think the metaphors were well chosen in the piece by Charlie McCann. I haven't heard the Dessner, but it sounds a bit like it might resemble some recent music by John Luther Adams in its depiction of a seascape. Steve Reich replaces harmonic and melodic tensions and directions with rhythmic ones, but he never forgets that music is supposed to go somewhere. It is a time art, a dramatic art, not a static one. If you are doing a musical landscape, you have to travel through it, like Debussy in La Mer, not just sit there throbbing idly.

Marc Puckett said...

I saw 'player piano' in that NYRB title and promptly dismissed the essay; thanks for recalling my attention to what seems to be after all an article well worth reading.