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Work of the Week: Conlon Nancarrow – Studies for Player Piano

Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano comprises of over 50 individual works which make up the majority of his compositional output. On 8 July, Ensemble Modern gives the Brazilian premiere of Study No. 7 in an arrangement for chamber orchestra (arr. Mikhashoff) with conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni at the Auditório Claudio Santoro in Campos do Jordão.

Born in 1912 in Arkansas, USA, Nancarrow began his career writing chamber music, but with performers often expressing their displeasure at the complexity of his pieces and Nancarrow often disliking their interpretations of his work, he needed to move away from this genre . In the 1940s, Nancarrow moved to a genre of composition without performers, choosing to write nearly all his works for player piano from this point. He bought the instrument (which he modified) and a machine for punching the piano rolls, and simply named his pieces “Study”, numbering each one. Some earlier works contain jazz or tango elements, whilst the later pieces are canonic.  All are rhythmically complex, often with mathematical processes and calculations being used to create the notes punched into the piano rolls.

Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano: Rhythmic complexity

Living in Mexico in the 1980s, Nancarrow received a surge in popularity by working with György Ligeti. Newly fascinated by the connection of mathematical precision to musical expressivity, the possibility of making the Studies for Player Piano playable by real musicians arose. Many pianists are now able to perform the studies, and numerous arrangements are available for different instrumentations.

Study No. 7 is, at six minutes, one of the longer and more complex early studies. Based on the interaction of two different tempi, the piece constantly grows in density and speed and relies on being played incredibly accurately.

I just write pieces of music. It just happens that a lot of them are unplayable. I don’t have any obsession of making things unplayable. A few of my pieces could be played quite easily – a few! – Conlon Nancarrow

Ensemble Modern give one further performance of Study No. 7 as part of their Brazil tour in São Paulo on 10 July.


Photo: © Otfried Nies (Conlon Nancarrow)