Classic Albums: Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano Vol. I & II

Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1912, played jazz trumpet as a youngster, studied music with with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Nicolas Slonimsky, joined the communist party, fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and lived out most of his life in Mexico City in relative isolation with his modified 1927 Ampico Reproducing pianos.

As long as I’ve been writing music I’ve been dreaming of getting rid of the performers.

And get rid of them he did. Nancarrow modified his Ampico player pianos in a number of ways including adding leather to the hammers of one and metal to the other. He was clearly after a sound that only existed in his head, and one that could not be performed by a human, and he spent his life bringing them to voice through the Studies for Player Piano.

the cover image is a reproduction of a mural by Octavio Santibañez that hung in Nancarrow’s home

These recordings were made in Mexico City in Nancarrow’s studio on his 1927 Ampico player piano, recorded January 10 and 12, 1988. The reason I’ve chosen Studies for Player Piano Vol. I & II is because I like to start at the beginning and this is where I started. I bought this CD when it was released in Tower Records, and it’s a great place to dive into Nancarrow’s prodigious output.

From the liner notes by composer James Tenney:

…the extraordinary quality and variety of his “investigations” are truly remarkable. On the one hand, there is enough in these pieces in the way of systematic intellectual organization to satisfy the most mathematically abstruse “constructivist”. On the other hand, there is enough lyrical freedom, rhapsodic invention, and sheer fantasy to warm the heart of the most outrageously romantic “intuitionist”.

Does that dichotomy sound familiar?

I find that both sides of my brain delight in Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano and if you enjoy music that’s unlike anything else, boogie woogie that’s well off Broadway, I bet you’re going to enjoy the heck of the Studies for Player Piano.