Studies for Player Piano

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Published on: 7 July 2010

Conlon Nancarrow (October 27, 1912 – August 10, 1997) was born in the USA, but he lived in Mexico from 1940 to his death in 1997 because of his membership in the communist party.

It was in Mexico that Nancarrow did the work he is best known for today. He had already written some music in the United States, but the extreme technical demands they made on players meant that satisfactory performances were very rare. That situation did not improve in Mexico’s musical environment, also with few musicians available who could perform his works, so the need to find an alternative way of having his pieces performed became even more pressing. Taking a suggestion from Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources, which he bought in New York in 1939, Nancarrow found the answer in the player piano, with its ability to produce extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the abilities of humans. So, he wrote studies of ever growing complexity, exploiting the mechanical nature of player piano system.

Nancarrow’s first pieces combined the harmonic language and melodic motifs of early jazz pianists like Art Tatum with extraordinarily complicated metrical schemes. The first five rolls he made are called the Boogie-Woogie Suite (later assigned the name Study No. 3 a-e). His later works were abstract, with no obvious references to any music apart from Nancarrow’s itself.

Many of these later pieces (which he generally called studies) are canons in augmentation or diminution or prolation canons. In music, a prolation canon or mensuration canon is a musical composition wherein the different voices play the same melody at different speeds (or prolations, a metrical term that dates to the medieval and Renaissance eras).

While most canons using this device, such as those by Ockeghem, Desprez or J.S. Bach, have the tempos of the various parts in quite simple ratios, like 2:1 or 3:2, Nancarrow’s canons are in far more complicated ratios. The Study No. 40, for example, has its parts in the ratio e:pi (i.e. 2.71828:3.14159, an irrational time ratio unplayable by humans), while the Study No. 37 has twelve individual melodic lines, each one moving at a different tempo.

He became better known in the 1980s, and was lauded as one of the most significant composers of the century. The composer György Ligeti called his music “the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives … the best of any composer living today“.

Here you can listen to and compare the above quoted Studies for Player Piano No. 3b, 37 and 40, all recorded with the Ampico Bösendorfer Grand in the possession of Juergen Hocker, which was restored under the supervision of Nancarrow.


Study for Player Piano No 3b


Study for Player Piano No 37


Study for Player Piano No 40

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