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.
We never studied the music of the American composer George Crumb in music school, but it was his music that struck me as being truly unique when I was a young composer. It was different in so many ways from the music that I had been analyzing in theory class. He had developed a sound world that was so evocative, spiritual, haunting, and personal. It touched me. He explored unusual timbres, placed unusual instruments into the ensembles, devised new extended vocal techniques for singers. He made me realize that contemporary music could be really beautiful as well as being intellectually satisfying.
When I first opened the scores, they looked stunningly unusual. He wrote all his scores in the most fastidious hand. Parts of his compositions are in the shapes of spirals, circles and crosses. Many pieces lacked bar lines, which was revolutionary at that time. When I first saw that technique, I couldn’t figure out how the musicians would play the music!
One of the great benefits of being an Esprit Orchestra audience member is that you get to hear music you might never have the opportunity to hear live. This includes me.
I have never heard Crumb’s A Haunted Landscape in concert, but on Sunday, November 20 Alex and Esprit will offer me that very rare opportunity.
Hear it first with Esprit Orchestra on Sunday, November 20 – yet another Canadian premiere!
— Alexina Louie O.C.
Sunday, November 20th
Alex Pauk, Music Director
273 Bloor St W.
Pre-concert chat 7:15
For more information about Esprit’s November 20th concert, and where to buy tickets, click here.
Murray Schafer and I have had a long working relationship and friendship and I’ve long thought about celebrating him and his work with a special concert, an event that is really overdue.
I first met Murray when I moved to Vancouver in 1973. He was finishing his work with the World Soundscape Project and preparing to move back to Ontario. I was just beginning my career and looking for work at Simon Fraser University where he was doing his research and teaching. Rather than lead me into academia, he said “you are a composer and conductor – just stick to doing that.” I’m grateful to him for that.
Over Esprit Orchestra’s history (we are about to launch our 34th season), I’ve commissioned several works from him, conducted his music more than 60 times (several times on Canadian and international tours in Europe and China) and made CD recordings of his music. I’ve programmed almost all of his works for orchestra and I’ve conducted the outdoor theatrical works Princess of the Stars and Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix in several separate production runs.
All this is just to say that I know Murray’s music well and respect it, and I know he trusts me and Esprit with his music. Murray will be in attendance at Esprit’s special tribute concert on October 23rd so the event will be a wonderful opportunity for friends and admiring audience members to meet Murray and pay tribute to him as we perform some of his most important pieces for the concert stage. It will be a vibrant celebration of a great composer.
I’ve lined up some terrific soloists for the concert. For Schafer’s monodrama Adieu Robert Schumann we’ll have the superb mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó in the role of Clara, Robert’s wife, evoking aspects of the last period in Schumann’s life – from his first hallucinations until his death in an asylum in 1856. The text is freely adapted from Clara’s diaries. Passages of Schumann’s compositions (lieder, fragments of his piano pieces) weave in and out of Schafer’s work, evoking moods, characters, and conflicts of the mind as Robert descends progressively into madness. A backstage piano mid-way through the piece plays the melody Schumann wrote down the night of his first dramatic hallucination – a melody he claimed was dictated by angels. The song, Dein Angesicht, opens and closes the composition.
I last performed Adieu Robert Schumann in 1990 with the legendary Maureen Forrester as soloist. I’m thrilled that I’ll now have the chance to do the piece again with Krisztina who is herself developing a legendary career. As for Murray’s flute concerto, this will be the fifth time that flutist Robert Aitken and I have collaborated to perform it with Esprit. The third work of Murray’s on the concert, Scorpius, is one that I commissioned for Esprit and have performed several times before.
Murray has had such a full, diverse artistic life and output. He is a great composer and I want to show this again.