Norbiton, Nancarrow, and the death of the performer

Is this music for pianos but not pianists, or hardly music at all?

Ever since I’d been writing music I was dreaming of getting rid of the performers.

Conlon Nancarrow

It is the centenary of Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) and in turning our attention to his music we are caught, as so often in Norbiton, in a pleasingly paradoxical temporal loop, because Nancarrow was an avant garde composer who eliminated the performer from much of his music, but did so by embracing a technology that was already obsolete when he took it up – the pianola.

From 1948, Nancarrow produced a series of studies, mainly in canon form, for the player piano or pianola, which are not only unplayable by human hand, but are frequently impossible to grasp aurally – as for instance here, No.5, where the relative limpidity of the first minute or so of music aspires by minute three to the condition of pianistic white noise.

The hair-raising possibilities of the player piano had been exploited earlier in the century by a number of composers – George Antheil, Stravinsky and Hindemith, for example, all produced music for pianola between roughly 1915 and 1930 – the pianola heyday – intrigued in part by its fashionably relentless mechanical drive. But the complexity of Nancarrow’s work is of a different order of magnitude, being grounded on what Nancarrow called ‘temporal dissonance’: the granting to each line of music of its own tempo.

Nancarrow was never much interested in melodic or harmonic invention. ‘The melodic line,’ he said in an interview with Roger Reynolds in 1975, ‘is simply a crutch in order to realize certain temporal ideas.’ The ideas in question were subtle. Tempo is not always wholly distinct from metre, so that certain simple tempo relations (for instance two against one) will be automatically read by the listener as different divisions of the beat within a coherent hierarchy, governed by the single tempo. But as the tempo relations become more complex, such a reading will rapidly become impossible.

By No.20, Nancarrow had explored various tempo relations up to 4 against 5, all, in his view, relatively simple; but at this point he was able to break free from the need to divide one line into another, by the introduction of a technical refinement to his manual punch. He eliminated a ratchet mechanism which had allowed only for discrete and so to speak harmonised movements of the roll, so that it was now possible to place lines of music in any temporal relation he liked: so for example in No.33 the two voices are in the relation 2:!2; and in what Nancarrow regarded as his most interesting, No.37, the 12 voices are placed at 150 against 160 5/7 against 168 ¾; 180; 187 ½; 200; 210; 225; 240; 250; 262 ½; 281 ¼:

The Pianola was not an instrument of choice so much as an enabling technology. What it enabled was, oddly perhaps, piano music. Unlike certain of his forebears or contemporaries such as Edgar Varèse or Karlheinz Stockhausen who were experimenting with new sound worlds, electronic music, and magnetic tape, Nancarrow thrashed his Promethean machine-age indignation from that most bourgeois of instruments, the pianoforte. Thus the audience is not only awed by what Eric Drott called the technological sublime, or by the cerebral sophistication of the temporal relations: it is transfixed by the sight of an invisible Lisztian diabolus poleaxing a parlour upright or boudoir grand in a parody, almost, of sophisticated concert performance.

Because what those countless hours of painstakingly punching out rolls of music led to was the smoking apotheosis – for which read elimination – of the pianist. The pianist, or more generally the performer, was a constraint. What to Nancarrow were the most interesting musical possibilities, ran aground on the shallows of the human physique – not only the span of the hand or the number of fingers, but the configuration of the internal metronome.

Whether something is lost in the process – a ‘human’ sensibility, or expressivity – is moot. This ‘human’ expressivity is, without being any the less real, just as much a performance, something learnt and to an extent prepared or prepared for. There is an element of display (or potentially anti-display) in every musical performance, something of Hazlitt’s Indian jugglers, a gratuitous dexterity and ease. Even those musicians who are said to efface themselves, allowing the ‘music’ to emerge, are exemplifying a sort of transcendent technical address, the ability to access an emotional or ‘spiritual’ or simply ‘musical’ core of some sort. Nancarrow’s music, if nothing else, spares us the visible and aural signs of emoting: the gurning and swaying of a Lang-Lang, to take an easy target, or even the snowy-haired Apollonian abstraction of a Backhaus, or the gentlemanly bemusement of an Arrau.

And Nancarrow’s work anyway has its own emotional charge, based in part on the mere fact of absence (we are accustomed to hearing in a pianola roll the unquiet ghosts of dead composers); and in part on the manifestation of an overwhelming intellectual presence: watching his rolls chug round is like tuning in to the radio traffic of distant worlds and turning up patterns of barely thinkable aural complexity floating through the ether. It is a sign of something out there, something remote and odd but familiar that we might, potentially, one day, hope to embrace.

Atlas of Norbiton is a weekly bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.
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About Author Profile: Toby Ferris

The Atlas of Norbiton is a bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton, the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

13 thoughts on “Norbiton, Nancarrow, and the death of the performer

  1. Worm
    May 8, 2012 at 13:32

    Again, a chap I had never heard about, really fascinating idea of making impossible music – of course something that we don’t really have to consider at all these days with multi-track studio software

    And with a name like Nancarrow I was expecting him to be a cornishman, but it turns out he was from Arkansas

      Toby Ferris
      May 8, 2012 at 16:12

      He wrote some pieces, I think, for computer-controlled piano towards the end of his life. He said he’d have used computers instead of pianolas if they’d been around, but there’s something appropriate about his backwoodsman technology. Apparently he had an enormous right forearm from half a lifetime operating the manual punch, which was a cumbrous and heavy machine – not unlike a piano, as it happens

      Didn’t know Nancarrow was a Cornish name. Oddly enough, he was a naturalised Mexican.

  2. Gaw
    May 8, 2012 at 13:35

    I’m afraid I would need a lot of evolving to enjoy those pieces. Extraordinary but excruciating.

      Toby Ferris
      May 8, 2012 at 16:22

      Bit of a racket, no question.

    May 8, 2012 at 19:38

    Related, but not the same, I recall that in the 1980s Frank Zappa started writing music for Synclavier that he intended to be expressly unplayable by human hands. Except that some Germans later transcribed at least one of the pieces (G-spot Tornado) & played bits of it at the end of the Yellow Shark…. Thus machine music sets a challenge for human hands.

      Toby Ferris
      May 8, 2012 at 22:06

      There are some transcriptions of Nancarrow studies for various ensembles (here, for instance, there’s a pretty pissed off looking trumpeter stuck in the middle of something , but I don’t think any player is capable of playing, say a tempo the square root of two against his neighbour’s two. I imagine they stop short at transposing that.

      Nancarrow would most probably have been better known had he given his pieces names like G-spot Tornado.

    May 8, 2012 at 20:52

    I enjoyed this post immensely – the ‘music’ less so. As to whether it is “something remote and odd but familiar that we might, potentially, one day, hope to embrace”.. maybe, but I’m not sure we’ve ‘got’ Beethoven, Bach etc yet.

    Loved your “an invisible Lisztian diabolus poleaxing a parlour upright”.

    And the Nancarrow quote “The melodic line is simply a crutch in order to realize certain temporal ideas” is just the sort of ridiculous remark that only truly brilliant people can make.

    May 8, 2012 at 21:33

    Thank you for this brilliant post Toby. Nancarrow was undoubtedly an ‘important’ composer, but I find the player piano pieces rather…er…relentless. It is a pity that this format, that made his name, is all we ever hear of his music, if we hear it at all. His first string quartet is rather wonderful, with a lyrical streak running through it – worth seeking out. Your last example (No.21) if memory serves, was one of the late John Peel’s choices when he spent an hour with Michael Berkeley on Private Passions.

    Toby Ferris
    May 8, 2012 at 22:23

    Thanks –

    Brit – yes embracing alien intelligences is something I should have thought through a bit more.

    Nancarrow also said that he was never much good at the melodic/harmonic side of things. Though from what Mahlerman says about the string quartet (which I’m afraid I don’t know), that might not be true.

    And Mahlerman – Yes, I don’t know any of his pre-pianola music. I’ll investigate. And thanks for mentioning the John Peel – no.21 was the first non-rachet piece N. did, and its oddly one of the few that have a very clear structure (two lines, one accelerating, one decelerating).

    More generally, I should perhaps have linked to one of the boogie-woogie ones – here for instance – and noted that Nancarrow played Jazz as a young man. I think it explains something about his obsession with micro-tempi, if I can call it that.

      May 9, 2012 at 09:34

      But isn’t it odd, Toby, that he both played jazz (an improvised music if ever there was one) and yet developed this extraordinary programmed music in which there’s no room for the performer at all. And still one’s preconceptions about the piano (the idea that there’s a pianist operating it, limbs flailing in a blur like that caricature of Liszt or a many-armed Hindu god of the piano) persist, surprising one with the notion that it’s just a machine, after all, producing all these notes.

      Thank you for the chance to hear these studies, which kept me gripped with their invigorating rhythms, with the exception of the long one, which lost me completely. There is something perhaps in the remark (made I think by the composer Thomas Adès, but I don’t have the source to hand) that it says something about America that its two greatest composers were a man who made a fortune in the insurance business (Charles Ives) and another who lived above a garage in Mexico City.

        Toby Ferris
        May 9, 2012 at 12:14

        Yes, certainly a little odd when you put it like that; but the improvisational nature of jazz means that much of what happens is non-notated/non-notatable – rythmically and in terms of pitch (microtones etc); and it was this interstitial stuff that, I’d hazard, he found interesting and explored with these studies. In that sense the one could be understood to lead to the other.

        As for getting lost in no. 37, I think that might very well be the point – one essay I read suggested that some of the pieces pass a sort of perceptual threshold, where you can no longer follows the lines as lines but a presented instead with a wall of unprocessable sound; – something John Coltrane probably (would have?) approved.

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