Unidentified Rolling Objects

You know, I’m sitting here in my office doing creative work on Digital Performer, and I’ve had a couple of Nancarrow queries lately from people doing intensive analytical work on him, and it occurs to me that I’ve got all these Nancarrow player piano rolls as MIDI information on my computer, including more than 60 that were found in his studio that don’t correspond to the canonical studies (and I do mean canonical, not canonic). Nancarrow was hypercritical of his own music, and, I think, consigned to oblivion some pieces just as good as some of the ones everyone knows. Many of the unidentified rolls are mere fragments or tempo experiments, and some, highly restrictive in pitch, are presumably for the roll-driven percussion machine he invented that never worked right and was abandoned. But some are fully fleshed out, quite impressive pieces. These tend to be a little more abstract than Nancarrow’s usual style, and perhaps he thought the ideas didn’t come across strongly enough. So here are five of the unknown rolls to listen to, lettered the way Trimpin lettered the rolls as he found them:

Roll A
Roll MM
Roll R

Romantic roll
Roll with “hello”

I don’t necessarily swear by the tempos, which are conjectural, nor for the dynamics. Dynamics on Nancarrow’s pianos were indicated by a few notes at the top and bottom of the register, and I edited the dynamics following those indications rather intuitively insofar as I understood his system: they sort of sound right. The first three sound like finished pieces. The “Romantic roll” is a conundrum – it’s romantically tonal, might be something by Liszt or someone, but I don’t recognize it, and I’m pretty good with Liszt. If anyone recognizes the piece, let me know, or we may have to surmise that Conlon wrote one piece totally out of character. I think a lot of the high and low functional notes are sustain pedal controls, but I didn’t know what to do with them. The last example captures one of his playful moments in which Conlon punched the word “HELLO” on a piano roll:
A few years ago I offered to premiere some of these on Disklavier in conjunction with the Bard Music Festival when they did “Copland and his World,” on the premise that Copland and Nancarrow had some contact; Copland wrote a favorable review of some early Nancarrow scores. The festival had no interest whatever. But that doesn’t mean I can’t share them on my own little ongoing internet Bard Music Festival, “Kyle Gann and his World.”


  1. says

    Very interesting stuff… any chance we can see the MIDI files as well?
    KG replies: Mmmmmm…. what format would you like to see them in, exactly? That sounds like an awful lot of jpegs.

  2. Saint Russell says

    Fascinating. The Romantic roll definitely has some Liszt in it; in particular, Un sospiro comes up two or three times.
    (captcha: “were squares”)

  3. says

    This is amazing; I never thought I’d hear new Nancarrow. Thanks so much.
    When I was a kid playing with the Music Construction Set program I used to spell words out graphically on a staff to see how they sounded. A lot of the time it wasn’t bad!

  4. says

    Nathan Bibb: … any chance we can see the MIDI files as well?
    KG replies: … That sounds like an awful lot of jpegs.
    I see you are joking about that. Though I’d also love to have access to some of the midi files themselves, it would be almost as much fun to see pictures of the piano-roll representation. More-so than with most artists, Nancarrow’s pieces are also interesting to see visually.
    KG replies: That’s very true. I’m trying to figure out how I can spread information about all this great material without impinging on whatever future royalties the Nancarrow family may stand to someday collect. Let me give it a little more thought.

  5. Don Keller says

    Unless my ears deceive me, Roll A is a player-piano version of the first movement of Nancarrow’s 3rd String Quartet.
    (P.S. I’ve enjoyed your writing, and your music, for quite a few years. Keep up the good work.)
    KG replies: Thanks for the comments and the catch, you’re right. There are two rolls labeled “A”, and I originally had the first one up; besides being a transcription of that quartet movement, this is also “Movement A” from a “Trilogy for Player Piano,” which I just noticed is released on a Wergo disc with the Arditti String Quartet, meaning three of the unknown rolls are already out there. The other roll I originally put up is just “Roll A.” I inadvertently made the switch when I went from sampler to Disklavier versions. I’ll get the other one back up there as soon as I can.