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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
Study 48b - as 48a
Study 48c - Webernian fragmentation - random windows
on a conversation suggesting rather than detailing the drift of the
Study 49 - Concerto for pianola and orchestra - in
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.