“une nouvelle approche de la complexité rythmique”

My article on Nancarrow for IRCAM’s contemporary music documentation archive is now online – in French, of course. I couldn’t write it in French, but I did brush up enough of my high-school French (three years) to carry on the relevant correspondence in that language. Amusingly, the archive is called BRAHMS, which musicologist Nicolas Donin tells me was originally derived from something like “Base de données Relationnelles Hypermédia sur la Musique de notre Siècle” – though no one now remembers for sure, and it’s now called something else, but the nickname stuck. Book or no book, I’m surprised IRCAM entrusted it to little old Downtown me, just as I’m surprised when prestigious music schools that I assume would never consider hiring me ask me to be an outside tenure evaluator for their professors, as occasionally happens.


  1. says

    Is there a chance of the English version appearing somewhere where a non-French speaker could enjoy it? Thanks.
    KG replies: Well, OK, but there’s nothing here not contained in my other writings on the man:
    Conlon Nancarrow had one of the most peculiar careers of any composer in history. Before age 65, he had almost no public presence at all. Within a few years after that, he would be hailed in Europe as one of the greatest of 20th-century composers. The reason he was able to keep an active musical career going for three decades in almost total seclusion was technological: some three fourths of his 65 or so works are written for a single, performerless instrument, the player piano. His reason for obtaining and devoting himself to the instrument was not anti-social, but entirely musical: he wanted to experiment with rhythmic complexes no one had ever heard before. And so in his out-of-the-way Mexico City studio, Nancarrow became the first person to hear rhythms of two against the square root of two, e against pi, 60 against 61, 17 against 18 against 19 against 20. Yet his achievement was not merely technical, for he brought to his four-dozen-plus player piano studies an incredible wealth of rhythmic and especially structural imagination. With few around to notice, he single-handedly redefined what was possible in the area of music’s rhythmic structure.
    Other composers – Stravinsky, Hindemith, Toch, Malipiero, Casella – had already written pieces for player piano, but, despite some forays into superhuman speed, thickness, and endurance, not with such complexity as to render the instrument entirely nescessary. The early conventional chamber works of Nancarrow show some interest in polyrhythms, though limited by what a young composer could expect to get performed at the time. In 1939, however, having returned from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Nancarrow came across Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources, which outlined a new theory of rhythm analogous to the harmonic series. A whole note, theorized Cowell, could be divided into five, seven, 13 equal parts, creating music of different tempos at the same time; one could go up and down a scale of tempos, or have simultaneous acceleration and deceleration. Intriguingly, Cowell added,
    Some of the rhythms developed through the present acoustical investigation could not be played by any living performer; but these highly engrossing rhythmical complexes could easily be cut on a player-piano roll. This would give a real reason for writing music specially for player piano, such as music written for it at present does not seem to have.
    Cowell himself did not pursue this route, but Nancarrow – who had grown up with a player piano in his parents’ home – took the section on rhythm as a template for his calling in life. To the end of his days, diagrams from Cowell’s book adorned the walls of Nancarrow’s studio.
    Despite his classical studies at Cincinnati College-Conservatory and later in Boston with Sessions, Slonimsky, and Piston, Nancarrow’s early performance experiences were based in jazz, and so were some of his first player piano studies. The first few pieces, which would later be grouped together as Study No. 3, were based on blues ostinatos, some of them at lightning-fast tempos. Over these, chords would repeat in layers of independent isorhythms: in Study No. 3a, the climax features simultaneous periodicities of 23, 29, 39, 43, or 47 16th-notes, respectively. A fan of pianists Art Tatum and Earl “Fatha” Hobbs, Nancarrow devoted considerable creativity to duplicating within a rhythm system the kind of hitherto-unnotatable freedom that jazz pianists employed. For instance, judging that the “swinging” of 8th-notes was neither a true triplet nor a dotted-8th/16th combination, he divided beats by ratios of 3 + 2 or 5 + 3.
    Aside from jazz, Nancarrow’s musical interests included Stravinsky, Bartok (from whom he inherited a number of his melodic proclivities), and also Indian classical music. He collected recordings of music made by the Ude Shankar ballet, and was impressed that the basic cycle of Indian rhythmic improvisation, the tala, was defined by a series of numbers: Dhamar tala, for instance, is a 14-beat cycle divided 5+2+3+4. Such numerically defined isorhythms would become the basis for most of Nancarrow’s first 20 player piano studies. In Studies Nos. 7 and 11, such isorhythms could also create the effect of subtle jazz syncopation over a lightning-fast beat.
    (Inconveniently, it is impossible to simply quantify the total number of Nancarrow’s player piano studies. They are numbered through No. 50, but Nos. 38 and 39 don’t exist, having been renumbered as 43 and 48 to fulfill commissions; Nos. 13 and 30 [the latter for prepared player piano, á la Cage] were pieces that he sometimes included, sometimes disavowed as unworthy; two final studies were titled, jokingly, Study No. 3750 and, more affectionately, “Para Yoko,” for his third wife; a late study [actually a transcription of an instrumental work] got folded into the series as No. 2a; and so on. There are even complete-sounding studies among the 68 unlabeled piano rolls found in his studio when it was cleaned out at the end of his life. Suffice it to say that there are officially about 50 studies, between 48 and 53 depending on one’s counting criteria, and possibly several others to be added to the canon after further research.)
    The study eventually titled No. 1 revolves around marching major triads in two tempos at once, seven-against-four; over this, melodies are spun from a 30-pitch row. (In only one work, Study No. 25, did Nancarrow use a 12-tone row, but longer rows were a common organizational device for him; Study 21 uses a 54-pitch row, and No. 47 employs a rhythmic row of no fewer than 99 notes.) Nancarrow sent a score of Study No. 1 to Elliott Carter, who quoted an example from it in an article he wrote called “The Rhythmic Basis of American Music,” published in a magazine called The Score in June 1955 – the only public notice taken of the player piano studies before 1960. Study No. 5 is a systematically additive structure based in two ostinatos repeating at a rhythmic ratio of seven-against-five, above which various chords repeat at intervals of 11, 13, 17, and 19 16th-notes.
    Study No. 7 is the most ambitious of Nancarrow’s early works, couched in a rhetoric reminiscent of sonata form, and combining six themes in three isorhythms of 18, 24, and 30 8th-notes respectively. In places, a pitch or harmony “row” goes out of phase with one of the isorhythms, just as in the isorhythmic technique of the 14th-century motet; little information about medieval music was available at the time, and it is unclear whether Nancarrow knew about his distant French predecessors, but it is notable that the French composer Olivier Messiaen had just revived a similar practice in his Quartet for the End of Time (1941). Here, as in Study No. 12 and a few others, a certain Spanish flavor is suggested by the use of Phrygian mode.
    In the “Seven Canonic Studies,” Nos. 13-19 (sometimes referred to as “six,” because Nancarrow was always a little dubious about the quality of No. 13), Nancarrow embarked on an exploration of the device with which he would become most closely associated: tempo canon. Using relatively simple tempo contrasts limited to 3:4 and 4:5 (expanded in three voices up to 12:15:20), Nancarrow laid transpositions of the same melody over each other at different tempos. Nancarrow liked to joke that he didn’t have much of a melodic imagination, and that writing canons allowed him to make maximum use of one melody. In reality, the underlying principles of tempo canon offered Nancarrow the devices from which his mature musical language would be formed. The structural points that determine the shape of a Nancarrow canon include the convergence point – the point at which two voices at different tempos converge on the same point in their melodic material – and the tempo switch – the point at which two voices exchange tempos. By controlling these and through them the echo distance – the continually shrinking or expanding time unit at which one voice echoes another – Nancarrow learned to create hitherto-unknown textural and structural effects.
    For instance, Study No. 24, one of Nancarrow’s most brilliantly intricate works, falls into 12 sections contrasted by both speed and dynamics (even-numbered sections being mostly loud and fast). The three voices are at tempo ratios of 14:15:16. In the center of each section is a tempo switch, at which the 14-tempo voice switches to the 16-tempo, and vice versa. The fact of the slow voice speeding up and the fast voice slowing down creates the inevitability of another convergence point, at which the voices coincide at the same point in their material. Nancarrow’s treatment of these convergence points is imaginatively varied. Often a convergence point coincides with a tumultuous climax; sometimes a convergence point falls on a rest, to make way for a more brilliant climax later in the piece. In Study No. 31, the convergence point doesn’t occur until a few seconds after the piece has ended, in the listener’s imagination.
    As the music approaches a convergence point, the temporal echo distance between the different voices quickly approaches zero, often creating some stunning textural effects perceptually unlike anything else in the musical repertoire. The convergence point of Study No. 36 is particularly dramatic: the preceding music rises to a climax, and at the precise point begins a series of extremely quick chromatic arpeggios in all four voices (at tempos of 17:18:19:20), the glissandos and the distances between them quickly lengthening as the moment passes. Even Nancarrow claimed to have been “shocked” by the result when he heard it. In time, the discipline of tempo canon began to determine many structural aspects of each work. For instance, in a tempo canon of several voices, Nancarrow would place an event in the furthest-ahead voice, then pair the echo of that event in the next voice with something similar in the first, then time something similar again with the echo in the third voice, and so on. The timing of repetitions of material in Nancarrow’s tempo canons tends to be determined by the pacing of echoes among voices, which is in turn determined by the tempo ratios.
    In Studies Nos. 21 and 27, Nancarrow played with the Cowell-inspired idea of acceleration canon. Study No. 21, nicknamed “Canon X,” is one of his most famous pieces: one voice starts off extremely fast and decelerates, the other starts off very slow and accelerates, so that their speeds audibly cross in the middle. In Study No. 27 the voices are marked by the percentage of their accelerations, so that in an 11% deceleration line, each note (or beat) in a melody is 11% longer than its predecessor. One of the monuments of Nancarrow’s output is Study No. 37, which contains 12 voices (no other work of his uses more than four). The 12 tempos outline a “tempo scale,” analogous to the frequencies of a 12-pitch octave in just intonation – an idea that Cowell’s book had suggested.
    Along the way, Nancarrow also realized that the player piano offered timbral and textural possibilities entirely foreign to the human-played piano. The watershed work in this respect is Study No. 25, which is marked by huge glissandos and arpeggios, sometimes in both directions at once, and at speeds of 175 notes per second, ending in a free-for-all with the pedal down in which 1028 notes blitz by in 12 seconds. From this point on, speed becomes a major element in Nancarrow’s music. Additionally, in his final works, somewhat like Beethoven in his last piano sonatas, Nancarrow began to fuse the different elements of his technique into a multidimensional language. Since tempo canon suggests acceleration in the closing of its echo distances, and suggests isorhythm or ostinato in the rhythmic groups or melodies that get repeated from voice to voice, tempo canon, isorhythmic, ostinato, and acceleration/deceleration begin to coexist in a complex, syncretic language.
    The masterpieces of Nancarrow’s late output are undoubtedly Studies Nos. 40, 41, and 48. No. 40 uses the tempo contrast e/π, which is approximately 13:15. The first movement is for one player piano, and the second consists of the same roll played again at different speeds on two player pianos. The massive canon of Study No. 41 has a far more complicated set of tempo relationships, involving the cube roots of, prespectvely, π and 13/16. Perhaps the most elegantly controlled of Nancarrow’s mammoth works, this one dots the foreground with recurring snatches of polymetric jazz melody, and the background with a system of drone pitches. Also rippling through the texture are a series of pitch rows containing from two to 24 pitches. The third movement consists of the first two movements played simultaneously on separate player pianos.
    For sheer size, however, Study No. 48, with a canonic tempo ratio of 60:61 is the magnum opus. Never had Nancarrow used such a minute tempo ratio, and the speed-up in all three movements is deliciously gradual. Unique to this piece is a background of steady, clocklike beats that accelerate in stages to maximum speed, against which the more foregrounded figures are perceived. Once again the first two movements are played simultaneously to make the third. In both first and second movements the approaches to the final convergence point are marked by an alternation of pianissimo and fortissimo dynamics, which will theoretically coincide between the two pianos if the right tempo is calculated; and even if not, the interplay of dynamics between the pianos will take on an interestingly phased shape. Unlike the third movement of Study No. 41, in which synchronization of the two pianos is not crucial, the two pianos here are intended to end together dramatically at the canons’ convergence points. Nancarrow allowed himself this difficulty because by now he knew the pianos could be synchronized after the fact in the recording studio; the effect is nearly impossible to reliably achieve “live” with two normal player pianos.
    In fact, the player piano studies in general pose problems for what might be considered “live” performance. Nancarrow covered the hammers of one of his pianos with steel straps for a bruttle, piercing tone; the hammers of the other are covered with leather and capped with a metal tack. Over the years he came to depend more and more on the metallic tone of his pianos to carry the counterpoint of his thick sound complexes. The early studies can be satisfactorily played on conventional, unaltered player pianos, but the later ones sound mushy, and details are obscured. Thus a truly authentic performance can take place only on the original pianos, which dwell in the depths of the Sacher Stiftung in Basel, or on other pianos modified to replicate those. Several of the early studies – those with simpler tempo ratios – have been arranged for chamber ensemble, and performed by groups such as the Ensemble Modern, Alarm Will Sound, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Still, Nancarrow plays a marginal role in the concert life of 20th-century music, considering how large he looms in the history of compositional technique, and particularly the development of rhythmic structure.
    Kyle Gann
    Conlon Nancarrow: Biography
    Samuel Conlon Nancarrow was born on October 27, 1912, in Texarkana, Arkansas. (The town straddles the Texas/Arkansas border, with an eponymous town on the other side.) The last name is believed to be Welsh in origin. Conlon was called by his middle name to distinguish him from his father, who had been transferred to the location by his employer, the Standard Oil Company. Samuel Nancarrow would become the mayor of Texarkana from 1925 to 1930; his name is still visible in the town on various plaques and monuments. Rebellious from an early age, his older son Conlon was packed off to military school in an attempt to teach him discipline. Instead, he “got the music bug” and began playing jazz trumpet. Nancarrow senior packed Conlon off to Vanderbilt University to study engineering, but Conlon barely attended class, and on his own initiative transferred to Cincinnati College-Conservatory to study music. Here he heard the Cincinnati Symphony in one of the first American performances of Le sacre du printemps, and began a lifelong fascination with Stravinsky, and with rhythm.
    Moving to Boston, Nancarrow studied privately with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, and Nicolas Slonimsky, and seems to have had a slight brush with Arnold Schoenberg, who had just expatriated. (Though Nancarrow didn’t remember the meeting, his first wife insisted they attended a party at Schoenberg’s apartment in Brookline.) As so many American artists did in the 1930s, Nancarrow joined the Communist Party at this time, which led to fighting in the Spanish Civil War in 1937-8 under the auspices of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He received a small shrapnel wound in the neck, made a hair’s-breadth escape in the hold of an olive oil freighter, and was hailed as a hero back in Arkansas under the mistaken belief that he had been battling Catholicism. Escaping again to New York, Nancarrow met Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, John Cage, and Wallingford Riegger, but when he learned that his comrades were being hassled by the U.S. government because of their Communist connections, he moved to Mexico City in 1940.
    Nancarrow took with him, however, Henry Cowell’s groundbreaking book New Musical Resources, which he had bought in New York City. The book detailed a whole new approach to rhythmic complexity, and suggested the player piano as a mechanical performance medium. In 1947 Nancarrow received some money from a trust fund left by his father, and used it to return to New York City and buy a player piano. He also visited the QRS player piano roll company in the Bronx, saw a hand-operated roll punching machine, and found a machinist who would duplicate it for him. By this point, Nancarrow had completed (between 1930 and 1945) fewer than a dozen brief works for conventional instruments: a few piano pieces, a septet, a string quartet, a Toccata for violin and piano, a multi-movement piece for chamber orchestra. Most of these experimented slightly with polytempo, or at least rhythmically complex, ideas, and Nancarrow had been greatly discouraged by the incompetent results of his infrequent attempts to get them performed. Now, back in Mexico City in a studio built by money from his second wife (an artist and model for Diego Rivera), he started in earnest on a series of player piano studies in which he could allow his rhythmic imagination totally free rein.
    Nancarrow sent a score of his “Rhythm Study No. 1” to Elliott Carter, who quoted an example from it in an article he wrote called “The Rhythmic Basis of American Music,” published in a magazine called The Score in June 1955. Around 1960, a tape of Nancarrow’s early studies made its way to John Cage, and became the background for a dance by Cage’s partner Merce Cunningham. The pieces from this dance were subsequently issued as a short-lived record on the Columbia label in 1969. These, and an early review by Aaron Copland, were virtually Nancarrow’s only moments of recognition before age 63, at which point Peter Garland began publishing Nancarrow’s scores in his Soundings journal. The following year, 1976, Charles Amirkhanian began releasing the recordings on his 1750 Arch label. In 1981 Nancarrow obtained a visa and visited the United States for the first time since the 1940s. The following years saw him honored at the Cabrillo Festival, the ISCM festival in Graz, and events at Innsbruck, Cologne, and IRCAM. He was accompanied at some of these venues by the composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who called his music “the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives… so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed, but at the same time emotional… for me it’s the best music of any composer living today.”
    With the spread of his subsequent fame, performers began commissioning Nancarrow again, and he wrote for human hands again or the first time since 1945. He produced the piano pieces Tango? and Three Canons for Ursula, a Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra, a second trio, and, for the Arditti Quartet, a monumentally difficult String Quartet No. 3.
    In his late years, Nancarrow suffered from emphysema, which the polluted Mexico City environment exacerbated. He looked into moving back to the U.S., but was told that he would have to sign a statement renouncing his “young and foolish” attachment to communism, which he contemptuously refused to do. He died on August 10, 1997.