Brilliant Piano Roll Hues



In the late 1970s, tuning in to a radio broadcast in California, I heard some remarkable piano pieces that left me astonished. The pieces delivered a flood of notes at speeds that would be impossible for a live performer to achieve. The unusual musical activity, extremely imaginative, was at times almost acrobatic. For example, two musical lines might start at opposite ends of the keyboard, move toward each other, cross in the middle, then continue moving to the other end of the keyboard creating a giant musical X. A live player would have to have extremely long arms to do this. Chords and melodic figures in complex rhythms come at the listener in great densities and speeds that could only be accomplished with many players on many pianos.

I later learned that the composer of the music was the ingenious Conlon Nancarrow who created such works as studies for player piano. Before the advent of computer generated sequencing, Nancarrow was one of the first composers to use auto-playing musical instruments.

In1947, Nancarrow bought a custom-built manual punching machine that enabled him to painstakingly punch the holes in piano rolls to achieve superimposed layers of music with “sliding”  (increasing and decreasing) tempi, many-voiced canons (musical “rounds”) and forms in which notes jumped around in extreme ways.

Having lived most of his life in relative isolation (American-born in Arkansas, he became a Mexican citizen in 1956) it was not until the 1980s that he became better known due to recordings of his music being made and distributed. He was eventually lauded by important musical figures such as György Ligeti who proclaimed that Nancarrow was one of the most significant composers of the century.

Nancarrow eventually composed several works for small ensembles and small orchestras, among them being Piece No.2 for Small Orchestra (1984) which appears on Esprit Orchestra’s February 12th concert at Koerner Hall. The piece has tell-tale signs that some piano roll techniques were being transferred into layers of instrumental lines in the orchestra but not with nearly the same complexity that could be created with piano rolls. Never-the-less, musical ingenuity and excitement abounds. All of Nancarrow’s music is worth knowing about and listening to.

Check out the link below for a taste of Nancarrow’s music and to see player pianos in action.

— Alex