"You cut the whole roll with razor blades?"
Conlon Nancarrow and his Music - a Personal View by Rex Lawson
Since the early 1980s, ask any musician whom they associate with compositions for the pianola or player-piano, and Conlon Nancarrow's name will top the list. This is not the main specialist website for Nancarrow and his music, and there are links at the foot of this page which will take you to a number of alternative sources. However, you will find here a clear perspective on the technical aspects of Nancarrow's studies, and the way they compare with the techniques of music written for other types of player-piano. You will also find a rather fond memory of a man devoid of pretension, gently but also sharply humorous, sometimes almost childlike, and with a deep musical intelligence and seriousness of purpose.
Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, in 1912, into a prosperous family which enjoyed music in an amateur way, and which helped him to study at Cincinnati Conservatory and later privately in Boston, with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Nicolas Slonimsky and even Arthur Fiedler. Those who care to trace such things may reflect on the similar irreverence and sharp humour shared by Slonimsky and Nancarrow. Nancarrow's politics were of the left, and he fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, as part of the so-called Lincoln Brigade. Returning home in 1939, he moved to New York for a year or so, but was refused a passport on account of his political beliefs, and so decided to settle in Mexico, along with Canada one of the two countries to which he could travel without papers. There he remained for the rest of his life, essentially composing music for player-pianos, and to some degree doing other work as necessary to support himself.
Nancarrow and the Player-Piano
Although there was a player-piano in the family home in Texarkana, Nancarrow's decision to use such instruments for composition came mainly from reading a book by Henry Cowell, New Musical Resources, which suggested experimenting with player-pianos for music too rhythmically complex for human beings to play by hand. Visiting New York in 1947, he obtained a secondhand Ampico upright, and also a hand perforating machine, copied from one (probably a Leabarjan) owned by J. Lawrence Cook. The names of Leabarjan and Cook are familiar to player-piano enthusiasts around the world. Leabarjan and similar perforating machines are occasionally still to be found, while the memory of J. Lawrence Cook, who made a greater number of popular roll arrangements than anyone else, is still kept alive by QRS and other modern music roll manufacturers.
A simple Leabarjan perforating machine
The perforating machine was substantially modified after a while, so that more subtle rhythms and accelerations could be achieved, and a second Ampico turned up in Mexico City during the 1950s. Thus the scene was set for Conlon Nancarrow's life's work, a series of over fifty studies, some in several separate parts, for Ampico reproducing piano. Those wanting to find out more of Nancarrow's musical style and development cannot do better than to consult Kyle Gann's excellent The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, published by Cambridge University Press. But for those who have hitherto thought that a player-piano is a player-piano is a player-piano, it may be useful to put Nancarrow's Ampico compositions into some form of technical perspective.
As can be seen on the Pianola Institute website, the Pianola was invented in 1895, although it was descended from a whole line of roll-operated musical instruments that stretched back to the mid-1870s. The Pianola was by no means the only piano-player in town, but its ease and subtlety of control placed it apart from its competitors, thus ensuring its immediate commercial success, and the survival of its name as a generic term for foot-operated player-pianos. Early piano-players fitted in front of the keyboards of normal pianos, and played by means of a set of felt-covered wooden fingers, so that the combination of the two instruments allowed their proud owners to play music from perforated music rolls.
The Pianola in New York in 1898
After a few years, instruments were built with all the works inside, and the upright version of these is probably what most people have in mind when they think of a player-piano today. But these early instruments were not automatic; all they provided were the notes, the whole notes, and nothing but the notes. Dynamic control was achieved by careful foot-pedalling and the use of subduing levers or buttons, tempo could be made musical by subtle use of another lever, and the loud and (sometimes) soft pedals of the piano could also be operated by means of hand controls. Rolls for such instruments were not at first made by pianists recording at piano keyboards, but instead by marking up blank master rolls in pencil and then punching out the note slots by hand. This similarity of roll production to that used by Conlon Nancarrow should not lead readers to suppose that the types of instrument are identical.
The Welte-Mignon in New York in 1906
In 1904, Edwin Welte and Karl Bokisch, of Freiburg-im-Breisgau in southern Germany, brought to fruition their new Mignon, a cabinet piano with no keyboard, which was capable for the first time of playing back music rolls recorded in real time by pianists, and with automatic dynamic control. The dynamics were regulated by means of coded perforations towards each edge of the roll, one set for the bass, downwards from the F# above middle C, and one set for the treble, from the G upwards. In the end, this automated type of player-piano became universally popular, and from about 1913 onwards a number of American companies brought out competing systems. Even the owners of humble foot-operated players craved some form of recorded roll, and the halfway house of the hand-played music roll began to be produced, with the notes as recorded in real time, but with the crescendos and diminuendos left to the skill of the player, albeit with copious (and no doubt patented) dynamic instructions.
Although there were skilled player-pianists to be found in North America prior to the First War, it seems to have been more in Europe, and especially in Britain, that the foot-operated player-piano remained a subject for serious study. This is not the place for a detailed study of this phenomenon, but it is fair to say that the United States came to regard player-pianos as universally automatic, with the expensive ones reproducing Paderewski on fine grand pianos, and the cheaper ones banging out jazz, ragtime and sentimental ballads, at a terrace dynamic level of only one terrace. So it can be seen that it was not only Nancarrow's desire to explore complexity in music that led him towards the player-piano, but also a love of jazz, which, at the time when he was composing, was somehow felt to suit an upright player-piano.
A typical American player-piano of the 1950s
Nancarrow and Ampico Dynamics
Despite the influence of Henry Cowell, Nancarrow was effectively composing in a vacuum as far as the player-piano was concerned. He was not aware that other composers had written for the instrument, and was therefore fascinated when he visited London in the 1980s to find out about Stravinsky, Hindemith, and the hundred or so other composers who had written for music roll during the course of the twentieth century. He observed at the time that it was not important to him what style of player-piano was used. He had simply picked up two Ampicos because they were available when he needed them, and so his style of dynamics, which we shall consider next, had been designed around their capabilities and limitations, but his music was essentially for the player-piano in general, and not specifically for the instruments in his possession. Indeed he has also observed that, if computer-generated pianos or synthesizers had been around when he began composing, then he might well have used these in place of music rolls.
An early Ampico dynamic coding patent
The Ampico was the first of the main reproducing piano systems to come out of America. Invented and improved by Charles Fuller Stoddard over a period of years from 1908 to about 1920, it controlled its dynamics in some quite complicated ways. The Ampico system that Nancarrow used divides the bass and treble sections between E and F above middle C. Each half of the pneumatic mechanism is controlled separately by marginal perforations on its particular side of the music roll. There are fast and slow crescendo and decrescendo perforations, and a series of three other accent levels that can be added together and superimposed upon the general levels created by the crescendo mechanisms. The closer the crescendos reach towards fortissimo, the more compressed becomes the dynamic space into which the accented levels must fit. It is a complicated but clever system, and rather too fussy for most of Nancarrow's compositions. As a result, he usually (though not always) restricts his dynamic coding to the use of the accented levels, and ignores the overall crescendos and diminuendos. A notable exception comes in Study no 6, an unusually poetic and lyrical study, reminiscent of Tequilas in the warm Mexican sunsets, where the rising and falling of the occasional melodic line gives a sense of stirring from repose and sinking back into it.
Different types of Player-piano
Most composers who have written for player-piano have done so on the basis of an incomplete perception of the instrument's range and history. Read the articles written by Paul Hindemith or Ernst Toch in Germany in the 1920s, and you will find the player-piano described as a completely automatic musical instrument. Look to Stravinsky, and a semi-automatic device appears, a player-piano that allows the composer to set out detailed instructions for the "execution" of his music, but not an instrument that performs the music without any human intervention at all. Eugene Goossens, who wrote a Rhythmic Dance that was perforated and issued by the Aeolian Company in London, was friendly with Alvin Langdon Coburn, an American photographer and practised pianolist, and, in his autobiography, praised Coburn's mastery of the instrument. Not surprisingly, Goossens' view of the player-piano was of a far more conventional keyboard instrument: one that needed sensitive interpretation to draw forth a musical performance.
All these views of the player-piano are coloured by the particular instruments that the composers encountered, and so they cannot be taken as reliable pointers to the nature of the player-piano in general. In exactly the same way, although Nancarrow's music has something of the universality of Bach's, and so can be played on a variety of instruments, his own technical perception of the instrument for which he wrote sprang uniquely from the Ampico, a reproducing piano designed for the keyboard wizardry of Rachmaninov and Rosenthal. Through his visits abroad, Nancarrow later became aware of a greater variety of player-pianos and their performance techniques, and this allowed him, for example, to conceive of the idea of combining them with live instrumentalists. But in considering Nancarrow's music and its sounds and impact upon us, we should not fall into the trap of mistaking the Ampico, with its particular design and capabilities, for the player-piano in general.
The Future of Nancarrow's Music
There are many problems with compositions written for such relatively unusual instruments. Once a composer has died, his music is kept alive mostly by live performance. CD recordings are not usually enough to ensure that music remains before the public in any lasting way. And the public needs performances, not mere playthroughs. It was clearly the memory of a lifetime to stand in Nancarrow's studio and marvel at the sounds emanating at high volume from the nearby upright piano, no doubt accompanied by a gleeful expression on the face of the composer. It is quite another matter to sit in serried ranks in a smart concert hall and listen to a piano with no-one sitting at the keyboard. Human audiences need human performers. For five minutes it is quite fun to see the keys going up and down on their own, but the excitement soon fades. Reproducing piano concerts need entertaining and careful presentation; in the case of Nancarrow, something has to make up for the lack of his studio and his smile.
Ensemble Modern's instrumental CD of Nancarrow Studies
One solution that is being adopted is to transcribe the music for other instruments. This is usually justified on the basis that player-pianos are rare instruments, especially in good enough condition to be placed on the concert platform, but in fact the most important feature of such transcriptions is that they call for human performers. This can work quite well, especially when instrumental colour is added for variety, and can to a limited extent reflect the original nature of the music. But unfortunately many human musicians, when faced with Nancarrow's almost unassailable mountains of notes, concentrate so hard that they lose the effervescence, the joie-de-vivre, the sheer pizazz of many of the studies. A well-meaning piano quartet, with conductor, all concentrating like fury, with not a smile to be seen, do not evoke the Conlon that I knew. Faced with more concerts of transcriptions than of the original rolls, we need more player-piano performances to redress the balance.
In Germany, there are two Ampico grand pianos that are presented in concert halls in order to perform Nancarrow's Studies. They have travelled to Holland, to Austria, to Great Britain and to other European countries. But Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is performed almost every night somewhere in the world, and by different musicians. It survives, and is constantly renewed, by the sheer variety of its performers. Where, then, are the different player-pianos, the different pianolists or reproducing piano enthusiasts, and more importantly, the rolls that can be used in Moscow, in Beijing, or indeed in Texarkana and Mexico City? In the case of Stravinsky, there are now enough public-minded museums and private individuals to ensure that a new critical edition of Stravinsky's music rolls can be published in the near future. This can easily be done by photocopying the original rolls, correcting and documenting any obvious errors introduced by Pleyel, and creating and perforating new sets on paper that will survive for the next hundred years or more. Nancarrow's original rolls are housed at the Paul Sacher-Stiftung in Basel, and so far there has been no sign of any plans to produce a public edition of his Studies. Faced with this situation, Wolfgang Heisig in Germany has been perforating as many as he can, using the scores published by Schotts, and privately owned copies of rolls, where they exist and, more importantly, where their owners are prepared to have them copied. But Heisig is no millionaire, and cannot afford the months of time it would take to visit Basel and correct by eye all the details from Nancarrow's original rolls (no photocopying is allowed). And indeed he cannot conjure out of nowhere a copy of a roll for which there is no publicly available source. This is a situation that should worry musicians who care about Nancarrow's music and its future. It takes only a few years for today's passions to become tomorrow's forgotten ephemera, and it would be good to have some form of public statement from Basel.
A Personal Footnote
Returning to Conlon Nancarrow the human being, many memories remain of his visits to London. At one concert, which included works by a number of other composers, he turned round and exclaimed, "Oh, no, this next piece lasts for TEN minutes!" It is reassuring to know that even twentieth-century composers do not like all of twentieth-century music. But such visits inevitably brought him into contact with other musicians, and with other player-pianos. During one of his visits to London, he picked up on the idea of writing a Concerto for Pianola and Orchestra, resulting in the series of three Studies, nos 49a, 49b and 49c. Unfortunately this planned work was never completed, though many sketches survive at the Sacher-Stiftung. Now though, the English composer, Paul Usher, has reviewed all the sketches, and has completed a new work, entitled Nancarrow Concerto, for Pianola and instrumental ensemble, which was given its premiere in November 2004 in Cologne, Germany. It was a privilege to be able to perform it in memory of Conlon, fellow music roll addict and good friend.
Nancarrow and his family in London in the late 1980s
Website Links and Other Sources of Information