We live in the shadow of musical giants who achieved, with pencil and paper, technical feats that our computers are hardly capable of competing with.

Kyle Gann, “Outside the Feedback Loop: A Nancarrow Keynote Address”

The first-time listener of the music by Conlon Nancarrow (the Conlon Nancarrow website of Robert Willey, associate professor for music media provides a lot of useful information), in all likelihood, will approach him with a certain amount of received baggage, all of which has contributed to the creation of a twentieth-century legend. First, due to their inability to play his music properly, Nancarrow decided early on to forsake human performers in favor of the player piano, a self-playing instrument whose heyday had passed by the time he busied himself with it. Secondly, he worked in obscurity and isolation during many years before the world realized, in the 1980s, that an unassuming but determined composer had toiled away for decades at one of the most innovative œuvres of the century in a secluded studio located in, of all places, a suburb of Mexico City.

This geographical circumstance had come about due to Nancarrow’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which branded him as a communist in the eyes of the United States government and resulted in the non-renewal of his passport. To round things off, in an extraordinary, fairy-tale like resolution, Nancarrow’s later years had seen fame and admiration visited upon him; things had come full circle and musicians were now not only playing his music properly—the playable pieces, at least—but even commissioning new works from him.

The decision to do away with live performers and embark on an astounding, single-minded investigation of one particular instrument’s possibilities was certainly motivated by the difficulties Nancarrow encountered when he tried to have his music played; but it was also a coherent, well-considered decision in light of his interests as a composer. Although the player piano was associated more with parlor music than with avant-garde endeavors, it is singularly suited for the exploration of different but simultaneous tempos. To illustrate this: let us say that one person walks from point A to point B in a given amount of time and requires seven strides to do so. Another, shorter person needs nine strides to cover the same distance during that same interval.

If both walk together and make a sound with their voices as they take each step, we hear two simultaneous but different speeds. In comparison with the first person, the second one will sound faster. A lone human, for example a properly trained pianist, can handle a temporal relationship such as this 7/9 one between the right and left hands. But things become impossible for the live performer when the composer requires a relationship where the difference in speeds is very subtle, such as 60/61 (as happens in Study #48).

It becomes even trickier when the relationship is between a rational and an irrational number, such as 2 and its square root (#33), or when one voice begins at 3.4 notes per second and gradually accelerates to a jaw-dropping 110 notes per second while the other voice does the reverse, beginning at 36 notes per second and decelerating to a 2.3 (#21). All of this can be accomplished by the player piano, at least if one has enough patience to undertake the necessary calculations, plot them out graphically on a piano roll, and then punch the required holes—as Nancarrow painstakingly did. The whole process could take as long as eight months of labor for a result of four or five minutes of music.

Could a computer handle this? Not around 1948, when Nancarrow started to compose his Studies. And perhaps not even today, or at least not as elegantly. Kyle Gann, a composer himself and author of an essential monograph on Nancarrow – whose web page on Nancarrow offers further materials on the composer – attempted similar musical processes with more contemporary, computer tools. The outcome: “I had tons more technology at my disposal than Nancarrow did, and still couldn’t execute the task as cleanly as he did.”

While on the topic of electronic or computer music, it is interesting to note that, though interested in principle in the production of music with electronic means, Nancarrow found very little affinity with the actual results that electronic composers produced. Interviewed in 1977 [pdf] by another enthusiast of his work, the composer and radio producer Charles Amirkhanian, he stated: “I have much more control temporally with these [pianos] than these electronic composers have.” Electronic music as we know it had evolved along lines concerned more with timbrical issues, or the exploration of new sounds, than with temporal concerns, such as the juxtaposition of different tempos or the acceleration/deceleration adventures outlined above.

Nancarrow’s compositional endeavors may sound terribly abstract and complex. On one level they are, and their analysis has borne fascinating and far-reaching conclusions, as Gann showed in his book. On another, however, Nancarrow’s music is breathtaking to experience and has an immediate and delightful appeal for a receptive audience that may well have no clue as to its underpinnings. Most of those who have heard his music have done so thanks to the recordings of the Studies, especially the complete set undertaken under the composer’s supervision, on his own player pianos, by the German label Wergo.

Nancarrow approved of this method of making his work known. Certainly a practical decision if one considers the difficulty of transporting player pianos: they’re “not very portable,” he said. The opportunity to hear the music directly on a player piano, as will happen during the Free! Music festival at the HKW, Berlin (with an instrument very similar to Nancarrow’s original, prepared by musician and composer Dominic Murcott), is a rare treat. In his introduction to the 1977 interview, Amirkhanian says: “No recorded image of his compositions ever will reproduce the overwhelming sensation of the raw power and excitement generated when sitting in Nancarrow’s soundproof studio in Mexico City and listening to his rolls ‘in the flesh.’”