22 February 2005

A flurry of Nancarrow

Ahead of his time or a tangent to his time, or whatever, Conlon Nancarrow [Wikipedia] is one of those modern composers that you absolutely must know about to appreciate the weird world of modern composition and its relation to today's landscape of music. It's often difficult to fit the more experimental composers into a framework without understanding the depths and nuance of what other experimentalists were creating and the techniques they were developing (many now dead, to be either forgotten or rediscovered some day).

Nancarrow's schtick was player piano. He used it to create works, around the middle of the last century, that were otherwise unplayable. He would punch the piano rolls himself to create his musical extremes: canons with impossible metric ratios, multiple vivace glissandi, as many as 12 melodic lines, etc. The results are sometimes dense, as would be expected, but they also had unusual textural contrasts as a result of the metric experimentation. Wikipedia points out that Nancarrow was influenced by Henry Cowell [Wikipedia]. Cowell has a couple of wonderful pieces, Quartet Euphometric and Quartet Romantic, that I remember use a rhythmic technique related to that of Nancarrow's. In these pieces and others, the rhythmic relationship between melodic lines is based on the ratios of the lines' different tones. The result would be ratios such as 4:5:6 (according to these notes, groupings were sometimes as technically imposing as 7 1/2 versus 2 4/5 versus 3 1/3 versus 3 3/4 versus 2 1/3). In a New World Records recording I had on vinyl, the performers played the Quartet Euphometric with headphones providing each one a click track synchronized to the others. The piece was written in 1919 and not performed until late in the century.

I got reaquainted with Nancarrow through an article on Kyle Gann's blog PostClassic over at ArtsJournal. He had written a book on Nancarrow and was excited about an upcoming concert at the Miller Theater in New York. The NYT has a (probably soon to be archived) review of the performance.

[ posted by sstrader on 22 February 2005 at 10:25:29 AM in Music ]