> Nancarrow Studies for player piano [RB]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Conlon NANCARROW (b. 1912)
Studies for Player Piano: Numbers 1-50

CD1 - vol.1 - Studies 3, 20, 41, 44 [54.54]
CD2 - vol.2 - Studies 4-6, 14, 22, 26, 31-32, 35, 37, 40, tango? [54.43]
CD3 - vol.3 - Studies 1, 2, 7, 8, 10 15 21 23 24 25 33 43 50 [57.40]
CD4 - vol.4 - Studies 9, 11-13, 16-19, 27-29, 34, 36, 46-47 [57.36]
CD5 - vol.5 - Studies 42, 45, 48-49 [51.08]
Recorded on the composer's custom-altered 1927 Ampico reproducing piano at the studio of the composer, Mexico City, 10/12 Jan 1988.
5 CDs plus 140pp booklet
WERGO WER 6907 2 [278.01]


Crotchet  £42.50 AmazonUK £37.99  AmazonUS

Trust Wergo to tackle with such style and comprehensive quality a non-commercial project of this type.

Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas on 27 October 1912. He studied with Roger Sessions, Nicolas Slonimsky and Walter Piston variously in Cincinnati and Boston. In 1937 he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Franco's fascists and there suffering real privation, injury and illness.

In 1940 political intolerance in the USA forced him to leave his home country for the comparatively liberal environment of Mexico City his home ever since. There he met and married the painter Annette Stephens who worked with Diego Rivera. The couple later divorced.

Nancarrow worked with the poet George Oppen who in the 'fifties, had fled the USA and its McCarthyite witch-hunts. Another friend was Juan O'Gorman the artist whose Aztec style calendar mural decorates the library of Mexico City University.

Isolation in Mexico ended in 1981 when he was persuaded to attend a Nancarrow festival in San Francisco. Since then he has travelled widely in the USA, Australia and Europe

His musical heroes are Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, Earl 'Fatha' Hines and Bessie Smith.

The Studies (sixty of them!) for Player Piano were written over a period of about forty years from the mid-1940s to circa 1988. He turned to the instrument in reaction to his frustration with getting his works played accurately. He claims to have been influenced by Henry Cowell's advocacy for the instrument in the 1969 book 'New Musical Resources'. That he has produced a sequence playing for in excess of five hours is notable not least because of the incredibly painstaking and slow process involved in punching holes into a blank roll. While the sameness of timbre of the pianola is a disadvantage the machine has the edge in precision playing of rhythmically highly complex and fast music. It suits Nancarrow's uncompromising creative character that he is liberated from the compromise of working with others with all the dilution and jumble of personality that such cooperation entails. In aural terms it is the equivalent of painting (a solitary creative exercise) and his friendships with painters surely has some relationship with or confirmation of his use of the player piano medium.

I hope that readers will accept my terse and rough-hewn notes written during the experience of listening. They will more vividly convey the sound of this extraordinary music.


Study 3a - a pecking and rippling pell-mell hail-storm of notes

Study 3b - slow lizard-like sidewalk-bluesy sidle

Study 3c - raggy casual harpsichord tangy

Study 3d - gawkily crawling Scarlatti sonata

Study 3e - return to the furious jazziness of 3a

Study 20 - constipated - deadened resonation - suggestive a little of plainchant and with oriental overtones from the piano music of Alan Hovhaness.

Study 44 - At ten minutes the longest piece on CD1. A gawky promenade with Latino/Caribbean elements. Like viewing Copland's El Salon Mexico through a fragmenting kaleidoscope. Mosaic in motion.

Study 41a - A rapid rippling ragged exercise in arpeggio. Dissonant and a-rhythmic fragmentation.

Study 41b - Death-watch with a resonance deadened 'ticking'. Small dramatic impacts and alarums ruffle the feathers.

Study 41c - Ragtime and Gershwiniana in decay. The glue that binds the accustomed gestures of the genre is loosened and the 'tiles' are reordered and brusquely jumbled. One of the most fascinating of the studies - fascinating in its unpredictability and hectic energy.


Study 4 - the British Elizabethan harpsichordists meet the Blues.

Study 5 - tone-deadened and jerky motion. Insistent pecking cell of notes cross-bred with the jerkiness to produce collision, incendiary flare and a visceral whirlwind. You must hear this.

Study 6 - Caribbean stroll, cool, mildly dissonant, relaxed.

Study 14 - Perfunctorily brief. Rickety progress.

Study 22 - Slow and reflective. Bass-emphasis but there are parallel lines in the baritone and tenor registers.

Study 26 - a Gothic study in stony, icily ringing, cut glass. Lamenting and melodramatic.

Study 31 - Fugally pecking, irritable but gradually losing its irritation.

Study 35 - Bachian tour with jazz flavour. Slow and fragmented. Pecking effect.


Study 1 - Way out - Sacre-like small impacts like incoming rounds but with a speed-building ostinato that pecks and slaps.

Study 2a - Bluesy saunter down Basin Street - three or four simultaneous hands

Study 2b - mechanoid Lisztian - pom-pom flak rhythms.

Study 7 - Hispanic flurries - flamencoid - typical fragmentation

Study 8 - mood music stalker - gradual speed up

Study 10 - casual leisurely fly swat gestures. The 'drama' of moths toying with a flame.

Study 21- chaotic speed. Gust-tormented curtains. Sounds like a vast corrugated xylophone - very impressive.

Study 23 - rickety joint-calcified rhapsody

Study 24 - sauntering

Study 25 - brusque slashing glissandi like a roughened file swiped across a corrugated surface

Study 33 - dissonant bells - slightly melodramatic

Study 43 - influence on Ramon Zupko also paralleling Kapustin and Harry Partch.

Study 50 - one of the rare instances where the instrument is permitted to resonate rather than the usual sustain starvation.


Study 9 - pecking and small note rushes

Study 11 - urgent train-like effect - picking up speed - impression of being under tight discipline then loosened by small increments - another highlight.

Study 12 - halting and slender Iberian harpsichord effect

Study 13 - like a constant speckled break-up in a broadcast signal of a Bach Fantasia increasingly hectoring.

Study 16 - more Bachian but less discontinuity than in 13

Study 17 - nightmare chasse

Study 18 - another rheumaticky Bachian fantasy

Study 19 - more Beethovenian fantasy - arthritic

Study 27 - sound deadened - panicky mezzo piano ostinato - darkly enriched caprice.

Study 28 - insect threshing and scalic work

Study 29 - morse code dotting and ticking - like the music for the radar telescopes in Herrmann's music for The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Study 34 - more morse coding

Study 36 - brusque slashes of note-cells thrummed and strummed with wild little gestures of Stravinskian exultation.

Study 46 - scream cells of notes - Hispanic gestures

Study 47 - like Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux - good introduction and a very substantial piece - bell-tormented piece- very optimistic - more than can be said of many of Nancarrow's studies. Picking up some earth shuddering energy. One of the longest at 6.39.


Study 42 - 7.32 long one track - meeting place between a sort of atomised Petrushka and a demolition job on the blues - a slowed down explosion.

Study 45a - played like a frenetic harpsichord

Study 45b - characteristically without sustain effects - concentrating on note patterns with rhumba and Havanaise inflections

Study 45c - metropolitan boogie-woogie

Study 48a - plink-plunk - insectoid quiet. Little combustible sprints.

Study 48b - as 48a

Study 48c - Webernian fragmentation - random windows on a conversation suggesting rather than detailing the drift of the discussion.

Study 49 - Concerto for pianola and orchestra - in three parts

Study 49a - hint of Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

Study 49b - stalking mystery of melodrama also a touch of Bach Art of the Fugue

Study 49c - metropolitan, angst-fuelled, cross-cut. Rhythmic cells flying like shrapnel.


There is a 135 page booklet which slips into the cardboard case. The notes are in English and German with the English section running to 64 pages. The notes are by James Tenney (the largest part of the notes) and by Charles Amirkhanian. There are several photographs of the composer, his collaborators and his chosen instrument.

Schott's (also the home of the Wergo label) publish the music which can be had from Weihergarten 5, D55116 Mainz, Germany.

I am very grateful to Harmonia Mundi for making this review set available. In its own way this music is a continuation of the work of Emanuel Moor, of Percy Grainger and of John Cage. Had Sorabji not resiled from his performance we would perhaps have had his music on player piano too.

It presents an astonishing and still too little known aspect of the music of the last sixty years.

Rob Barnett

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