Conlon Nancarrow / Studies for Player Piano (1948-1992)

Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), an American born modernist composer, develops new musical ideas in his composition of music for player piano. Nancarrow began studying music in his youth and later turned to composition. During his youth and time in the United States, Nancarrow composed very little. In late 1930s Nancarrow became involved with a brief movement of communism.[1] Through this involvement, Nancarrow travelled to Spain to fight in the Spanish revolution. From this, Nancarrow spent some time in a French internment camp. On his release, Nancarrow travelled back to America where he lived in New York. While living in New York during 1939, Nancarrow learned of difficulties the other members of his political movement were finding in renewing their passport and also with broader issues facing them in their everyday life due to the negative connotations of communism in America at this time. From 1940, Nancarrow entered a 'self-imposed exile' in Mexico where the majority of his works were composed.[2] Nancarrow did not return to the United States after 1940 until 1981, and from 1981 regularly travelled to the United States but remained living and working in Mexico until he died in 1997.

Despite being little known in Mexico, Nancarrow did not operate outside of a 'tradition'. Like many composers of this generation, John Cage provided a significant influence on the music of Nancarrow.[3] Although Cage provided a key influence for Nancarrow, the most significant influence on his compositional style was Henry Cowell. Cowell's 1930 composition treatise New Musical Resources inspired Nancarrow to explore rhythm as the only outstanding feature of his music. Cowell's treatise suggests that rhythm is only a vibration that has been augmented.[4] In this concept, A=440 sounds at 440 hertz per second, Cowell argues that if a drum were struck 440 times per second an A would be produced. This way of considering rhythm inspired Nancarrow to explore rhythmic writing to a further extent than that considered by Cowell. Furthermore, Nancarrow was almost entirely self-taught in composition other than a short series of tutorials on counterpoint he received on his return from Spain. Counterpoint is also a key influence on his work, with the cannons of J.S.Bach inspiring a similar infatuation with canonic writing.[5]

Player pianos were primarily used as a method of providing light musical entertainment in restaurants or at home without the need for a pianist. These pianos primarily played music that could be played by a pianist and mainly played popular music. Nancarrow sought to change this. The main innovation to how these instruments were used, was in the complex nature of the music written for them by Nancarrow. The player piano represented a method for total control in the eyes of Nancarrow, providing the piano roll was accurate to his idea, the resulting performance would not be a victim to a player's interpretation or even human limitations. This new 'limitless' method of composing led to innovations in tempo, also being a key feature of Nancarrow's writing. Rhythmic devices could be employed that would be unplayable for a pianist, where there are two only minutely different rhythms which distinguish the lines which would be lost if played by anything other than a machine.

Furthermore, the player piano enabled vast amounts of notes to be played simultaneously. Whereas a pianist could only play ten pitches at any given moment, the player piano could play eighty-eight. Similarly, the player piano was also capable of playing rapid sweeping chromatic scales that cover the range of the piano, which became a staple of the player piano style for Nancarrow. All of these developments led to the critical innovation of Nancarrow's style, which is his canonic writing. In a standard canon, the voices act in ratios, 1:1 represents where the voices all sound the theme at the same tempo. Standard cannons can also exist in augmentation (1:2) where the second voice plays the melody half speed; or diminution (2:1) where the second voice plays the melody at double the speed of the original.[6] The player piano's ability to reproduce the role precisely, allowed Nancarrow to explore canonic writing in ratios outside of these standard canonic forms. More standard cannons by Nancarrow feature a canonic ratio of 4:5, with others having a ratio of 17:18:19:20.[7] Nancarrow further explores canonic ratios with his latter studies, including ratios of 2:Ö2 and his study 40 having the canonic ratio of e:p. Though these ratios present innovation of Nancarrow's style, they also present a piece that is impossible to play for an instrumentalist. Furthermore, some of Nancarrow's canonic ratios provide a further issue in their ratio resulting in an irrational number, and thus due to Planck's constant being mathematically impossible to perform.

Study number 40, Transcendental, is one of the cannons written by Nancarrow in 1977 that exemplify the issues with performance. Study number 40 is a cannon written for two player pianos.[8] This cannon features one of the complex canonic ratios that were common in the canonic works of Nancarrow. This study features the canonic ratio of e:p, this canonic ratio does not result in a rational number which in turn means that it is impossible to notate the complex polyrhythms that would be the result of this. Also, the unclear meaning behind 'e' further complicates how exactly Nancarrow desired this piece to be performed. Furthermore, there are few recordings of this study and none of which have the piece in cannon. This demonstrates the impossibility of this study in particular even for the player piano. Nancarrow does give some explanation on the preface of the score to the performance directions of the piece; he states that both parts should last around four minutes, with the second piano lasting 4'20". However, due to the irrational canonic ratio even with these suggestions, the piece still represents an impossible task.

Conlon Nancarrow represents the new ideation of the twentieth century. Nancarrow's largely self-taught technique allowed him to develop compositional devices that pushed the limits of what was possible at that time. Furthermore, his interest in mathematics and the influence of Cowell's led to further development in expanding the ideals of transcendentalism and Nancarrow's engagement with the European philosophical movement. Furthermore, Nancarrow's innovations not only inspired those composers around him but also inspired a legacy of composition without the performer, especially in relation to the Black Midi tradition. Lastly, Nancarrow's compositions for the player piano led to significant innovations to the mechanics of the player piano, increasing the capabilities of the instrument providing light entertainment.

For further information about Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano follow the links below to a selection of videos which consider these topics sooner. Alternatively, stick around for my full article on these pieces coming later in the year.

12-tone video;

David Bruce Composer;

Adam Neely;

Jonathan Davies, November 2020

References [1] James R Greeson, ‘Conlon Nancarrow: An Arkansas Original’, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol.54 no.4 (Winter, 1995) pp.458 [2] Ibid [3] Roger Reynolds, ‘Conlon Nancarrow: Interviews in Mexico City and San Francisco’, American Music, vol. 2 no. 2 (Summer, 1984) pp.15 [4] Ibid, pp.3 [5] Ibid, pp.21 [6] Alfred Mann & Kenneth Wilson, ‘Canon’, Grove Music Online (2001) <> [Accessed 15th March 2020] [7] Clifton Callender, ‘Performing the Irrational: Paul Usher’s Arrangement of Nancarrow’s Study no.33’, Society For Music Theory Journal, vol.20 no.1 (March, 2014) pp.2 [8] Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano Vol.2 (Wergo, 2009) [CD]

Jonathan has also written:

The Mask of Orpheus: The ENO Issue

What's Wrong with Isolde? A Feminist Critique of Wagner


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