Conlon Nancarrow weekend @ the South Bank

22 April 2012

To the South Bank for part one of their Conlon Nancarrow weekend. An American ‘maverick’, Nancarrow (b1912), became a communist, fought in the Spanish Civil War, was invalided home where he was harassed for his beliefs and found no taste for his difficult music, and so exiled himself to Mexico, where he lived and worked till his death in 1997.

Nancarrow pioneered a revolutionary approach to combining tempos, ie having multiple ‘melodies’ or sequences of notes playing simultaneously, creating works so fiendishly complex no human being could play them; instead, he laboriously punched out the music, by hand, hole by hole, into paper rolls for player pianos. Each piece typically took a year to create and lasts 2 or 3 minutes. 50 pieces in all. Even among the avant-garde his work only became known in the 1980s.

This weekend of events has been two years in the making, most of which involved tracking down the kind of player piano he used, restoring it and his tattered piano rolls, standing it on the stage of the Purcell Room, and having two player piano experts take turns loading each roll and briefly introducing each piece. Plus an opening lecture by people who knew and championed his work, an hour-long biographical film, and an evening concert in the QEH of orchestrated versions.

There’s no doubt it’s a hard listen, but sometimes you can make out the structure; other times enjoy the ‘Nancarrow Lick’, the mad glissandi playing swoops of notes impossible for the human hand; or the ‘swarm’ effect of hundreds of notes being played nearly simultaneously. Junior noticed that many of them end with a cheeky flourish. Speakers on the film testified he was a warm and charming man, and the jokiness of some of the pieces reflected his sense of humour. But he wanted to avoid warmth or sentiment; he adapted his player pianos to give them a brighter, harsher sound.

Canon X (Study 21) is relatively easy to understand: the ‘right hand’ starts playing a series of notes very fast, the ‘left hand’ a series very slow; and then they take about 3 minutes to reverse their speeds, thus crossing over half way through, hence Canon X.

Conlon Nancarrow, Study for Player Piano No. 21 (Canon X) on YouTube

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