musings on nancarrow

Authored by Curtis Macdonald:

Conlon Nancarrow among his Piano Rolls

After a long hiatus, I’ve delved into more of Conlon Nancarrow‘s work for player piano.  Inspired by an excerpt from Study No. 33, I’ve programmed a drum set improvisation to its rhythm.  Consider this track a long awaited sequel to this one which prompted Nancarrow expert Kyle Gann to post about it here.  The drum sounds are from my personal collection and seem to compliment the rawness of Nancarrow’s piano quite nicely.  Click Here to listen to the audio.

Here’s how I did it –

Each drum sound is a sample controlled by a MIDI note, which I synced to the piano’s audio.  I placed each sound on the timeline manually and by ear to ensure accurate placement without the reference of grids or quantization.  Working with MIDI in this way can be a very tedious process, but I believe it is in the same spirit as Nancarrow’s work where he meticulously punched small holes one-by-one onto a hardcopy piano roll.  In concept, I find the process quite similar to collage-art or the building of a mosaic.

Working in an environment absent of notation reminds me as a composer to seek out new ways to organize rhythm and frequency, and as an instrumentalist to pursue ways in which to broaden and ultimately strengthen my performance capabilities.

“Since our appreciation has been limited, for the most part, to the simplest rhythms, and since it is difficult to play accurately more complex ones, it is necessary to form rhythmic scales of the simplest possible ratios… we employ the simplest overtone ratios which can be found to approximate each interval… It would be interesting… to hear such rhythms cut on a player piano roll.”
-Conlon Nancarrow

In many ways Nancarrow was a pioneer of MIDI composition decades before computers and software became widely available to composers.  His music demands a complexity that far exceeded the abilities of the musicians of his time, which in turn has inspired new performance practices and compositional methods for subsequent generations.  Today, ensembles like Calefax have set to the task of adapting his music for live performance.

Related links:

For further study of Conlon’s player-piano études:
Electronic Realizations of Conlon Nancarrow’s Study No. 37 for Player Piano

“You claim that I write monstrosities which only the composer can play. What if they were meant only for the composer?”
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji