CONLON NANCARROW - STUDY #1 FOR PLAYER PIANO

Step One - Historical Background

Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas on October 27, 1912 1. His teachers include Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions. Early musical experience also includes performing as a jazz trumpeter, which would explain why he lists Louis Armstrong as a significant influence, along with Bach and Stravinsky 2. In 1937 Nancarrow went to Spain to fight against the fascist government of Franco with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. When he returned to the United States in 1940 he was politically persecuted for this involvement and for his communist sympathies. To avoid further persecution he moved to Mexico in 1940 and remained there, eventually becoming a Mexican citizen.

Nancarrow began to compose specifically for the player piano when the rhythmic processes in his music became too complex for human performers to handle accurately. Certain of his rhythmic ideas, and even the notion of using the player piano as a medium for music too difficult for people to play, may be traced to Henry Cowell's remarkable and prophetic book New Musical Resources 3. In recent years there has been increased interest in Nancarrow's music, with new recordings being released of the complete Studies for Player Piano, new commissions for works for performers such as Tango? for piano commissioned by Yvar Mikhashoff, and String Quartet No.3 commissioned by the Arditti Quartet. The Ensemble Modern has also just recorded many of his early instrumental works and new arrangements of the player piano studies for chamber orchestra. These works which had for so long appeared to be beyond the capability of human performers have now found a new life in the hands of this virtuoso ensemble.

Nancarrow has managed to flourish in his musical isolation. While living far from the musical centers of the world would impede most composers from having their works performed, Nancarrow has been able to by-pass this problem by writing for his player pianos. While this also kept him from receiving much notoriety, his influence can be seen on the works of a number of significant composers, most notably Elliott Carter (who includes a quote from Nancarrow's Study #1 in his own First String Quartet 4). Hungarian born composer Gyorgy Ligeti has also recently cited Nancarrow as an influence 5, and has tried to adopt certain of his rhythmic procedures for use in works for performers like his Etudes pour piano (- premier livre -) of 1985.

Nancarrow's musical style can be seen to be the result of his various influences. First, from Bach there is the constant polyphonic texture and the use of learned devices of strict counterpoint such as canon, melodic inversion, retrograde, etc. However while Bach's counterpoint is a counterpoint of lines, Nancarrow often uses different textures for each of his polyphonic strands (or strata). One strand may be chordal, another strand may be primarily melodic, another may be "textural" (rapid glissandos, or percussive ostinatos are just two typical devices found often in his Studies). Another important distinction between "Bach counterpoint" and "Nancarrow counterpoint" is that in Nancarrow's music the various strands often move at different speeds. This gives his music it's dense polyrhythmic character. Polyrhythmic may not always be the appropriate word for what is going on in Nancarrow's music, poly-tempo is often a more accurate description. There are also often multiple meters involved, so poly-metric is another distinction that may be of use in discussing his work. In much of Nancarrow's later music the primary device used has been termed "polyrhythmic canon", a device clearly evident in his String Quartet No.3. The earlier studies are not always strictly canonic as is much of the later music. A comparison between devices used by Nancarrow and by Webern has been mentioned by James Tenney, but Tenney goes on to say that Nancarrow never sounds like Webern. It may be that the use of strict contrapuntal devices comes more from an interest in Bach than any exposure to Webern, perhaps the Bach of A Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue.

From Stravinsky, Nancarrow took the "cubist" juxtaposition of his material, his interest in complex rhythmic procedures, his use of ostinatos, and to some extent his tonal or poly-tonal procedures. Nancarrows music is almost always in some way "tonal" rather than strictly atonal in a Schoenbergian sense. The use of common triads, structures built on fourths and fifths, "poly-tonal" combinations where two (or more) triads are superimposed are all normal devices in Nancarrow's music. The often frankly tonal materials are obscured when each strand in the overall polyphonic texture may be in (or on) a different "key", or each may even be based on a different type of construction (i.e. one strand may be based on triads, another on fifths as in the Study #1).

From his early interest in jazz Nancarrow kept a certain melodic style that makes his melodies, or perhaps more properly motives, easily recognizable even in the most dense surroundings. The melodic material often sounds as if it being treated in the way that a jazz soloist would play it. Many of the studies make direct use of jazz and boogie-woogie rhythms as well. This use of recognizable, even "catchy" melodic material and lively jazz influenced rhythms makes Nancarrow's music "listenable" even at it's most abstract.

 

 

 

Step Two - Open Listenings

The Study #1 for Player Piano 6 of Conlon Nancarrow contrasts sharply punctuated chords with melodic material. The chords grow closer together and the melodic material seems to take on a more frenzied character as the work progresses. The piece grows in density and excitement to a climax, and then recedes back to sharp chords moving farther apart in time, and clearer melodic statements.

Step Three - Syntax

See accompanying time-line, and chart of motives.

The first thing to strike the analyst when looking at the score for Nancarrow's Study #1 for Player Piano (originally called Rhythm Study No.1) is that the two staves are written in different meters. Initially in two parts, the upper part is written in 7/8, the lower part in 4/4, yet the measures are equal. It is essential to understand at the outset that what would appear to be notes of equal value in both parts are not actually equal. An eighth note in the 7/8 part is not equal to an eighth note in the 4/4 part. This is clarified when examining the tempo given for each part, and for the whole. The 7/8 part has a tempo indication of eighth note equals 210. The 4/4 part has a tempo indication of quarter note equals 120. Above the staves is written "Measure of 7/8 = 30". What isn't written is that the measure of 4/4 also equals 30. This makes clear that both parts are moving at the tempo of one measure being equal to 30, or 30 bars per minute. In the two parts the measure is divided differently, in the first it is broken into seven eight notes, in the second part into four quarter notes. This then sets up the basic polyrhythm between the two parts, 7:4 (seven eighths in strand one equal the same amount of time as four quarters in strand two). A polyrhythm in this ratio is complex enough to be of great interest, but what Nancarrow does with this polyrhythm is of tremendous subtlety and sophistication. Neither part simply states its basic rhythm, so that while the two parts are in this 7:4 ratio, we never actually hear it as such.

The 4/4 strand has as its material superimposed fifths built up on Db (Db-Ab-Eb), Ab (Ab-Eb-Bb), and Gb (Gb-Db-Ab). This almost seems to imply a type of I-IV-V progression, the tonal basis for everything from classical symphonies to the blues. These three chords are played as an ostinato pattern, first stated Db-Gb-Ab, then later altered to Db-Ab-Gb. This material is designated A1 in the accompanying time-line analysis, and in chart 1. It begins as staccato eighth notes played once every five beats (the "beat" equals one quarter note). It then changes at bar 8 beat 3 to once every four beats, then again it changes at bar 13 beat 3 to once every three beats and at bar 21 to every other beat. What this changing pattern does is inside a steady tempo it creates an ever accelerating pattern. While the music is clearly written as being at one speed throughout what one actually hears is a type of accelerando. The 4/4 strand is marked quarter note equals 120. When the chords are played once every five beats what the listener actually hears is a pulse of 24 beats per minute (basic tempo of 120 divided by 5 equals 24). When the part changes so that the chords are played every four beats what the listener hears is a pulse of 30 beats per minute (120 divided by 4 equals 30). When it changes to every third beat the pulse that one hears is 40 beats per minute (120 divided by 3 equals 40), and when it reaches its greatest speed at every other beat, the implied tempo is 60 beats per minute (120 divided by 2 equals 60). This difference between the tempo as written and the tempo that one actually hears, what one perceives, is an essential element in Nancarrow's music, and it also became central to Elliott Carter's thinking, allowing him through various subdivisions to state or imply several different tempos at once.

The strand notated in 7/8 is similarly comprised of an ostinato pattern, this one made up of a pattern of four major triads on E-G-E-C. This material is designated B1 in the time-line. Similarly, these chords are struck every five beats (the beat here is an eighth note), then at measure 9 beat 3 every four beats, at measure 13 beat 3 every three beats, and from measure 21 every other beat. The material also changes at measure 21, this material being labeled B2. While this part is written consistently in a tempo of eighth note equals 210, the implied tempos that one hears are pulses of 42 beats per minute, 52.5 b.p.m., 70 b.p.m and at the fastest point 105 b.p.m.(at this point the material changes to B2). This ambiguity between written tempo and perceived pulse makes an already complex polyrhythmic relationship between the two parts far more exciting. Both parts actually increase in speed to the midpoint of the piece, where the meters are exchanged (the part written in 7/8 is now in 4/4, and vice versa) and the process begins to reverse itself.

Added to these two parts, both of which play continuously throughout the piece, are three other temporal strands, or voices, or parts, which play either melodic material or contribute complimentary ostinato patterns. All of these additional parts are in some type of temporal relationship to the 7/8 part, the eighth note in the 7/8 part equals the eighth note in each of these other parts. The first melodic entrance occurs in measure 5 (measure numbers refer to the measure of 7/8 - 4/4. The additional parts are written in differing meters and their measure numbers do not correspond). This phrase is labeled C in the time line. Like each of the melodic phrases (they will be labeled C through F) this one is made up of an antecedent and consequent phrase, marked Ca and Cb in chart 1. It is played in sixteenth notes, thus presenting a perceived tempo of sixteenth equals 420. It is played complete at first, antecedent followed by consequent. In measures 6 and 7 it is divided between the bass and treble ranges and overlapped. The bass range plays the first three notes of Ca, the treble answers with the first two notes of Cb. This continues until both antecedent and consequent are completed in their respective ranges. The material, Cab, is typical of Nancarrow's melodic style in that it seems somewhat indebted to jazz and blues for it's contour. The C# sounds at first like the third of A major. When the C natural is sounded four notes later it sounds like a flattened "blue" third, the G preceding it like the "blue" flattened seventh of A major. The final five notes of Ca, beginning with the C natural, seem to outline C major, with the E natural, the major third of C, followed closely by Eb, the "blue" flat third of C major. Cb seems to reverse this, with a "blues" phrase on C major, followed by a "blues" phrase on A major. The combination could be described as a bi-tonal blues lick!

All of the melodic material is related in the sense that they all share an emphasis of "blue" notes, and they all seem to outline more than one key.

The next melodic entrance comes in measure 9. This part is notated in 6/32, 9/32, and 12/32. The basic rhythmic unit is a dotted sixteenth. This part sounds at a tempo of dotted sixteenth equals 280. This material is labeled D in chart 1 and the time-line. It, like motive C, has antecedent and consequent phrases, played complete in one register, then repeated, divided between treble and bass.

At measure 16 motive E enters at a tempo of eighth note equals 210 (there is an error in the published version which marks this as eighth note equals 120. This is clearly incorrect when one realizes that the eighth note in this part is equal to the eighth note in the 7/8 part). There is Ea and Eb, antecedent and consequent, to this motive as well. First played in one register and then divided between treble and bass just as with motives C and D.

Beginning at measure 22, motive F is heard. This part is notated in 25/32 meter, with five thirty-seconds receiving one beat. Nancarrow uses a unique notational device for this part, a "sine-wave" note head. In a note at the top of the score he indicates that this notation is to equal a dotted sixteenth tied to a sixteenth. This strand moves at a tempo of 168 b.p.m. This, like the previous melodic entrances, is presented first complete in one register, and then with antecedent and consequent broken up between treble and bass.

In measures 29-32, the antecedent of each motive are strung together as a melody, Ca-Da-Ea-Fa, which descends from treble to bass, at tempo of 280 b.p.m. Up to this part no more than three polyphonic strands are heard together. By now the two original strands, ostinatos A1 and B2, are at their greatest speeds. Two of the other strands now enter, one at measure 33 with Ca (at a tempo of sixteenth equals 280) as an ostinato in the bass, and one with Cb giving way to Dab as ostinato (at perceived tempo of 168 b.p.m.) in the treble. The fifth strand enters in the extreme treble like a jazz soloist on top of all the ostinatos, first with Dab at perceived tempo of 420. This part then plays Cb-Eab-Fab at the same tempo. At measure 45 the strand moving at tempo of 168 now presents new material, labeled G in chart 1 and the time-line. This material is related to B1, made up of major triads. As this continues, the fastest strand enters with Da played five times, dropping an octave each time. This takes us all the way to measure 50, the mid-point of the piece. At this point five distinct tempos are sounding simultaneously, 420-280-120-210-168. This point of greatest temporal and polyphonic density is the climax of the piece.

Beginning at measure 51 the piece begins to retrace its steps in retrograde motion. The two main parts, as has already been mentioned, exchange meters and materials. The 7/8 part is now in 4/4 and has A2, chords built on a perfect fourth with a major second enclosed within it. This part continues at the speed of 60 b.p.m., or every other beat in the 4/4 measure. This material gives way at measure 69 to A3, a series of poly-triads, Bb over C#min, Ab over Bmin, and Db over Emin. This part stays with this material till the end of the piece. At measure 81 it changes to every three beats, or a perceived tempo of 40 b.p.m., at measure 88 beat three it goes to every four beats or a tempo of 30 b.p.m., and at measure 93 beat 3 every five beats or a tempo of 24 b.p.m.

The part which is now in 7/8 beginning at measure 51 has B3, a series of minor triads in second inversion, played every other eighth note, at a perceived tempo of 105 b.p.m. This continues to measure 81 where the material changes to B4 and it appears every 3 eighth notes, a tempo of 70 b.p.m. It "slows down" again at measure 89 beat three where it is sounded every four beats, or at a tempo of 52.5, and at measure 92 beat five, when it is sounded every five eighths at a tempo of 42 b.p.m.

The melodic motives, for their part, appear in retrograde order to that which they appeared in the first half of the piece. This is easily visible on the time-line where the second half looks like the mirror image of the first half. The motives themselves are played backwards as well, the notes appearing in retrograde order. This is indicated in the time-line by the motives being labeled with an R. The parts also appear at the opposite range from where they were first stated, if a part were in the high treble in the first half of the piece, it will come back in the extreme bass in the second half. For example, the Ca motive that was heard as an ostinato in the bass from measure 33 to measure 50 is heard in the treble as an ostinato as Car, the notes reversed. The second half of the piece is an undoing of the tension created in the first half, the number of parts thinning out, the material appearing to get slower.

The piece as a whole is a kind of arch, the material getting faster and denser till the climax at the midpoint, and the a retrograde of everything that has come before, both formally and melodically.

 

 

Step Four - Sound In Time

The first sound one hears is a strong chord in the bass. This is immediately contradicted by a triad in the middle register. These two types of sound seem to oppose on another, at odds harmonically (one is built on open fifths, one on triads which, because they belong to no one key, cancel out any sense of definite tonality), and at odds rhythmically (they are not struck together, nor do they coalesce into any single pattern that one can discern). Both of these elements continue as if oblivious of one another, but each settling into their own regularity. The two together seem to dissolve into a type of background at the first appearance of melody. This melody stands in relief by virtue of its regular rhythm, and by its treble position. This motive is repeated in a disjunct manner, split between treble and bass.

The background begins to become more active, its harsh accents coming closer together. Above this is heard the second melodic subject, similar to the first but notably different, and at a slower speed. The background seems to grow more active, the foreground more lethargic. The "bluesy" character of the melodic material seems at odds with the somewhat astringent chords crashing in the bass. The melodic strands seem to want to pull the music back, make it slow down, while the accompaniment, the chords, become more urgent and agitated.

By the entrance of the third melodic subject, the chords have congealed into what can be perceived as a pattern, while this is the slowest melody yet. With the appearance of the fourth melodic subject we are presented with the slowest melodic material in the piece, and what had seemed like a regular pattern in the accompaniment has gone out of sync again, one strand rushing past the other.

There is then an extended melodic statement which eventually turns itself into an ostinato in the bass, adding a strand to the accompaniment. This is followed by another strand turning melodic material into an ostinato, but this one is heard in the treble. Above this, what are now four different accompanimental strands, is heard the most excited and emphatic melodic elaboration at the fastest speed. It's as if the hottest soloist in a jazz ensemble gets to solo last and is determined to "cut" the other players with his/her technical prowess. Or perhaps the melodic material which had been trying to contain the growing commotion in the accompaniment has now given itself over to the excitement in the other parts, and is swept along by their energy. Suddenly a new chordal pattern emerges as the most emphatic, urging the piece to its climax. We then get a phrase repeated five times, descending an octave each time.

At this, the point of greatest density, we are suddenly thrown into a whole new confusing world. While it had been possible to follow the progression in each strand till this point, it seems as if something has just broken free and is now running wild. There is a density that it is almost impossible to sort out. Things seem backwards, as if we had been spun around blindfolded and suddenly nothing was where we expected to see it. In examining the score it is easy to see why, parts are exchanged and things begin to happen "backwards". By the time one is acclimated to the new type of activity going on it is already beginning to calm down. There is a tremendous rush, a breathlessness to these central bars which carry the listener to perceptual heights, and then drops them, but the safety net is out of sight, it seems like a free-fall.

It is only as the ostinato parts begin to drop out, and the texture thins, that the listener finds him/herself on reasonably familiar ground. Little by little we are able to recognize certain gestures, patterns, and textures. Parts seem to recede into the background, the energy of the piece is spent. While there is one last burst of energy in the bass, the retrograde statement of the initial melodic statement at the fastest tempo, the accompaniment is able to reign it in and bring the piece to a close.

To describe it as an aural roller coaster is not inappropriate. The listener is gradually shown some small drops, picking up speed the whole time. The hills get steeper and steeper, until finally the greatest peak is mounted and the biggest drop is made. It would be impossible to stop now, the shock would be too great. We have to gradually slow down, let the ride come to a stop by itself so that we don't feel a sudden jolt if we brake too fast. The ride ends but we are still left dizzy and exhilarated.

Step Five - Representation

This is a piece of "absolute" music. There is no program stated or implied, and since the work is written for mechanical player piano and realized for this medium by the composer himself, the score includes no dynamic or expression markings. Since there isn't even a human performer involved (in the original version anyway) it could be argued that what the piece "may" mean is limited, since there is no possibility of interpretation. This is unjustifiably limiting to Nancarrow, who, it can only be imagined, must go to great extremes to get the piano rolls so accurate that the mechanism "performs" all dynamics and expressions correctly. There is, however, nothing that can be directly reported in this step of the analysis.

Step Six - Virtual Feeling

As the piece begins, we are presented with two accompanimental strands slashing about, trying to find a beat. There is something perhaps a little menacing about these two strands. Wrought with dissonances, one part emphasizing sharps, one part flats, they seem to be at odds with each other, yet somehow cut from the same cloth. It would be impossible to tell without looking at the score that both parts were rhythmically regular, even similar in that they both begin by stating every fifth beat (then every fourth, every third, every other, and then the reverse). They seem to bring out the "mechanical" aspect of the player piano medium.

When the first melodic subject is presented it immediately sets itself apart from the accompaniment by its quirky, jazzy melodic outline. It seems to exist in its own temporal sphere, "skating" across on top of the beat without ever touching down. This seems to represent a "human" aspect, in contrast to the "mechanical" nature of the accompaniment. The freer rhythm, the passing reference to jazz melodic structure, an almost dialogue-like sense to the way it is presented all seem to point to this interpretation. It is not too far-fetched, perhaps, to read into Nancarrow's first work for this medium a certain psychological struggle between "human" and "mechanical" elements.

When the next melodic subject is presented the dichotomy between the melodic material and the accompaniment is stressed by the fact that the accompaniment is growing faster while each successive melodic statement is slower than the one previous. This could represent the two factions pulling against each other. The two elements, melody and accompaniment, appear for a while as if they will settle into something where they can cooperate with one another.

The various melodic statements (C, D, E, and F in the chart) all seem to be "about" the same thing, though each one is different. It is as if a few people were each giving their own opinion or viewpoint on one subject (perhaps the growing mechanization of society), while outside background noises, in this case the accompaniment (itself representative of the very noises one hears every day in a mechanized society) grow louder, faster, stronger, more insistent all the time. The individual opinions or voices begin to get swept up in the growing din of the outside noises, they are carried along by it, they get beat into submission by it. They are forced to scream simply to hear themselves.

As the piece grows in intensity one senses something that is both terrifying and exhilarating. While each part tries to retain its independence, they can't help but get pulled into the swirling mass that threatens to engulf them. As their society gets ever more mechanized, ever more inflexible, they are awed by what it has to offer, yet they realize that it could mean the loss of the very thing that makes them "human". It seems inevitable that they should get swallowed up by the mechanization which surrounds them, melody turns into ostinato. But as the machines reach their point of greatest authority there is suddenly a turning around, a reversal of fortune. Perhaps the "humans" realize that they can control the machines, or perhaps they just pull the plug. Or perhaps they give up, surrender to their mechanized superiors, admit that they love Big Brother. Whatever the reason, there is a lessening of tension, a relaxation. The "machines" continue to pound away, but there is a loss of ferocity. They don't need to work as hard, to stress their dominance as much. The melodic material, heard as outcries, become more difficult to distinguish from their background. When they are discernable they seem less emphatic, because the order of the notes have been reversed. And because their position has changed, now being primarily in the bass.

The regular rhythm of the accompaniment continues while the melodic statements grow ever more impotent, only the final melodic gasp in the extreme bass, quite fast against the chords which have slowed back down to their slowest tempos, seems to have any real power left with which to argue with, contradict, struggle against the tyrannical accompaniment.

Step Seven - Onto-Historical World

This study was composed in 1947 or 1948. Nancarrow was an American who was not free in America. He was a composer whose music was beyond musicians. He was an idealist who was forced to put his ideals to the test. This is where Nancarrow found himself in the 1940's.

His solution to these problems were eloquent in their simplicity. He would leave America and live somewhere where he could be free. He would find a medium where he would not need musicians for the performance of his music. And he would live up to his ideals, a model of grace and self-reliance, perhaps the noblest American composer since Ives.

One can only guess at the trepidation Nancarrow experienced as he committed himself to his chosen medium. There is, however, nothing timid about this work. That it is full-blooded and vital is a great testament to his mastery of the mechanism. He was clearly in command from the outset, despite whatever technological horror story I may have put forward regarding the work (I recall a friend once telling me that he would go mad if he saw one more movie, film being one of the most technologically dependant of the arts, about the evils and/or perils of technology). Perhaps it would be more appropriate to see the "human" and "mechanistic" elements congeal as the piece progresses, meshing into a whole that is greater than the sum of it's parts. Or perhaps the piece is an orgy of possibilities, with both participants exhausted by the proceedings. Whatever scenario one prefers, the piece does seem to be closely tied to the situation Nancarrow found himself in, and his responses to it.

The "obstinate" character of the opening ostinatos is obvious. Neither of the two parts has any harmonic or melodic direction, they simply go round and round. The part in 4/4 may be more of an anchor, built as it is on open fifths, the fifth being the most stable interval other than the octave or unison. These ostinatos are clearly at odds with the melodic statements, each of these being played at their own independent tempo. The two elements present varying degrees of separation and togetherness as they progress. Being forced to go with the tide is a part of everyday life, most people get swept along with little or no struggle. The piece may be a drama depicting various stages of the struggle against the tides, the melodic material gradually being subsumed by the ostinatos. Perhaps that last, bass melodic statement, in a frenzied tempo against the gradually decaying accomapnimental figures, is Nancarrow's lone voice in the Mexican desert, asserting it's individuality and freedom though no one cares, spitting into the wind, shouting into a void.

Step Eight - Open Listenings

This work, which I had feared because of the medium would be short on "meaning", seems to grow with each new hearing. It is easy to be overwhelmed by Nancarow's music, the velocity, density and complexity all work together to sweep the listener along. It can rush by you before you know it, this study is only 2 minutes and 30 seconds long on the latest recording of it (Nancarrow obviously prefers to take a faster tempo now than when the piece was published, 99 bars at 30 bars per minute would take a little over 3 minutes). I had anticipated turning to the chamber orchestra version if I got stuck, if it seemed that without a performer the work was somehow lacking. The opposite has been true, I find the added colors of the chamber orchestra something of a distraction now. While it does help to make the counterpoint clearer in spots, and it was just amazing to hear an ensemble handle those rhythms accurately, for this study anyway I much prefer the original medium.

Having carefully studied the work, it is easier to hear the various strands clearly. This only enhances their degrees of relatedness or non-relatedness. That the piece is "about" two levels of experience, one represented by the ostinato accompanimental parts, the other represented by the melodic statements, and how the second approaches the nature of the first, is gradually absorbed into it (turning melodic utterances into ostinatos themselves), and then recedes, reverses its tendencies (moves in retrograde motion) and becomes dissimilar again, is clear from the musical materials themselves.

Step Nine - Performance Guide

Since this has been dealing almost exclusively with the original player piano version of this piece, no performance guide will be given since none is required for the medium. Having never seen the score for the chamber orchestra version, I shall not venture to comment on that either.

Step Ten - Meta-Critique

While there may be too much overlapping from one step to another, I feel that if someone were to come to this analysis with no prior knowledge of Nancarrow or his music, they would come away slightly better able to appreciate the goings-on in this piece. Having always been interested in the technical aspects of Nancarrow's music, it was easy to overlook the expressive aspects. As mentioned earlier, it is easy to be overwhelmed by a piece by Nancarrow, and to stop there. To let these pieces, the studies, simply be amazing is to not admit their full worth. There is great beauty in melodic passages, great logic in their construction, great sonic impact in their execution. None of these aspects should be overlooked. Taking an eclectic method to analyze this piece forces one to approach it from many different angles, and to confront it on various levels, to be open to all that the piece has to offer.

This is a piece, which because of the medium or the title, which could give one the impression of being nothing more than a technical exercise. That it is a complete, powerful, moving piece of music I am certain, and hopefully I was able to convey some of that in this analysis. That the medium never became the message for Nancarrow is an important lesson, especially for composers involved in electronic music, computers and synthesizers today. He composed for the medium, just as any composer would write differently for String Quartet than for Piano Solo than for full Orchestra. One writes to the strengths and away from the weaknesses of any medium. Nancarrow found the perfect medium to explore a realm of musical perception that is unique to his work, and that is important for its originality and mastery. His innovations offer limitless ideas for expansion and development, and electronics would seem to be the obvious medium of choice; computers can handle Nancarrow's types of polyrhythms and poly-tempos easily. His is a unique and stimulating body of work, one which is deserving of greater attention and study, and this first study is an excellent introduction to it.

 

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  • 1 Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano Vol. III & IV, Wergo WER 60166/67 - 50. Much of the biographical data is drawn from the program notes accompanying the recording, written by James Tenney.

    2 Bob Doerschuk, "Conlon Nancarrow, The Unsuspected Universe of the Player Piano," Keyboard, January 1987, 82.

    3 Henry Cowell, New Musical Resources, (New York: Something Else Press, Inc., 1969).

    4 David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter, (New York and London: Da Capo Press, Eulenburg Books, 1983), 162.

    5 Gyorgy Ligeti, Etudes pour piano (- premiere livre -), Volker Banfield, pianist, Wergo WER 60134, program notes by Gyorgy Ligeti, translated by Sid McLauchlan.

    6 Conlon Nancarrow, Rhythm Study No.1 for Player Piano (later simply Study #1 for Player Piano),(New York: New Music Corporation Publisher), Originally published in New Music, Volume 25, Number 1, October, 1951.

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