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.
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.