Seditious Sounds: On Conlon Nancarrow

by Gautam Pemmaraju


In a desultory speculative history, an affliction caused by the febrile May heat here in Bombay, I imagined a current day encounter between two old scheming radicals who spent their entire lifetimes up to no good—from global-trotting revolutionary activity to cloistered tomfoolery. I saw MN Roy, a founder of the Communist Party of India and the Mexican Communist Party slowly sipping tequila out of a slender glass with Conlon Nancarrow, a music composer of extraordinary conceptual depth and at one time, an American communist. Apart from a shared ideological space, these two remarkable men also shared a love for Mexico City—while Roy spent two intellectually formative, even revelatory, years in the sprawling city from 1917 to 1919, Nancarrow left America in protest twenty years later in 1940. He subsequently became a Mexican citizen and spent the rest of his life there. In my heat-induced visions, I saw the two eating fresh papaya (Nancarrow reportedly was very fond of them) and shooting the breeze. Perhaps they spoke of British spies, Bolsheviks, Hegelian dialectics, and radical humanism; my delirium did not reveal the nature of the conversation. I am more inclined to attribute things of a mundane nature to the encounter—the pleasing weather, Louis Armstrong, and seasonal fruits. It could well be that they were planning a night out at MN Roy's former house No 186, now a well-known ‘clandestine', ‘hip' night club in Mexico City (thanks to 3QD editor Robin Varghese for this gem), the irony of which is fecund with wild discursive possibilities.

If Roy's radicalism and intellectual contributions during that time were seminal, Nancarrow's musical ideas and practice, created in isolation and relative obscurity, were insurrectional, to say the least. Until late last year I had but a passing familiarity with Nancarrow. Following an essay for the magazine Art India, it was Ray Brunelle, the legendary sound-effects man (about whom I have previously written & who in recent times has been making fascinating reverb effects for Altiverb), who suggested that I look at Nancarrow's work. Indeed, in any survey of conceptualist sound (and music) work, Nancarrow's work should figure—his ideas are craftily engineered with rich, complex imagination. By most accounts, to those who formally study music and composition (I am alas not among them), Nancarrow is a revered name; his works are still actively studied. However, it is in the conceptual space, where the very notion of what music is (and can be), tested as it has been consistently and fascinatingly by a whole range of musical argonauts—from the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, the Frenchman Pierre Schaffer, the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, the American experimentalist John Cage, the German ‘electronic music' composer Karl Heinz Stockhausen to the work of La Monte Young and the Fluxus group, to name but a few amongst several other key figures—that Nancarrow's work dazzlingly displays artistry beyond the norms of conventional music composition and performance.

The primary conceptual element to my mind is that Conlon Nancarrow wrote music exclusively for the player piano—a self-playing piano that uses perforated rolls. He was essentially, writing for a machine to perform. Much of what he wrote could not actually be performed by a human being. Of the painstakingly crafted algorithmic compositions, punched out on paper rolls by him on a machine that he acquired on a trip to America in 1947, Nancarrow left behind 51 rolls of complete studies; six abandoned ones; one study titled ‘Contraption', which was a composition for the sound artist Trimpin's Instant Prepared Piano (a computer controlled mechanical piano); a Tape Music piece; a piece for the composer György Ligeti's 65th birthday; and a few others. Later in life, following well-deserved attention and a MacArthur Fellowship, he composed a few pieces for performers.

Nancarrow's Study No. 40 is a wonderful conceptualist conceit, reinforcing the fact that his works for player pianos, not created for human performance, are instead for “not necessarily a machine but some kind of strange hybrid creature.” In this composition—Nancarrow was obsessed with rhythm and tempo; “two subject matters for my whole life” in his words—the tempos of two parts are in a ratio of e to π, which as the composer & Nancarrow's biographer Kyle Gann says, “were never going to coincide, theoretically” in a radio documentary. This use of an irrational tempo ratio is linked to a wider episteme, drawing dexterously from mathematics, science, humanities, and other disciplines of human endeavour. Gann likens the relationship of tempos in Nancarrow's music, the “musical phenomenon that runs through his music”, to the windshield wipers of a old bus which eventually go out of sync and fall back in at some point. In Gann's words, the payoff in Nancarrow's music is

…when he has 3 or 4 lines going, but slightly separated in time and the time keeps stretching. They get further and further apart. Piece starts off bang, everything hits the same note; you hear almost chords, and they start becoming arpeggios; and finally they get so far separated and the music changes into something else; and at some point the tempos switch and they start coming back together again.

The build up of layer upon layer of conceptual complexity is a marker of the blurring of the boundary between music and sound art; in Nancarrow's case it is tantalizingly being breached time and time again. At an early age, he took in a great deal of jazz and in particular, was fond of Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Earl Hines amongst others; these early influences find their way into his compositions: “like fragments of memory, familiar American idioms weave through these daring combinations—blues and jazz seem to sweet talk us into an eye of a hurricane”, as the narrator of the above radio documentary says. But he drew his musical practice from a text titled New Musical Resources by the composer, theorist and teacher Henry Cowell, a hugely influential figure in modern American music. In fact, as Gann writes, the very foundation of Nancarrow's work is linked to Cowell's text, wherein he writes,

Some of the rhythms developed through the present acoustical investigation

could not be played by any living performer; but these highly engrossing

rhythmical complexes could easily be cut on a player-piano roll. This would give

a real reason for writing music especially for player piano, such as music written

for it does not seem to have….

Yet another layer of conceptualism to my mind, is the fact that Nancarrow was truly the first listener, the primary audience, for his compositions, exclusively performed for him by a mechanical self-playing piano. As Gann writes, his work existed outside of the “feedback loop”, free from ‘reception anxiety': “he was the first composer in the history of acoustic music to get a perfect premiere performance of every new piece he wrote.” Gann also points to an ‘emotive agnosticism' in Nancarrow's work and he draws parallels to the work of John Cage and Milton Babbit.

The boundary between music and artistic experimentation in sound and music is a much-discussed one. One of the clearer differences is that while the former exists in a performative realm, the latter finds articulation in the gallery, exhibition realm, where curious onlookers (listeners) are drawn to an ‘innovation'. The theorist Seth Kim-Cohen regards sound art in opposition to western music. He points to a ‘non-cochlear' approach to sound art, analogous to Marcel Duchamp's conception of ‘non-retinal' visual art. Conceptualism, and the matrix of ideas linked to the term, underscores the constant testing and breaching of artistic boundaries. Also key are perhaps challenges to institutional ideas; as the writer and theorist Peter Osborne has previously argued, conceptual art “questions the institutions of the art world, the relations of artist to spectator, the act of art making itself, emphasising process over product, the meaning over the physical artifact.” The artist and theorist Brandon LaBelle invokes John Cage in this context and writes that reflecting “upon the conventions of musical practice through the very process of producing music and establishing compositional methods as a way to articulate such reflection” is at the core of what a “conceptual” approach is. Nancarrow's work apprehends several layers of conceptualism simultaneously. Before his public recognition his work existed in a rarefied space, accessible to but a few, and entirely outside of any institutionalised setting (Amongst others, Cage was an admirer and Merce Cunningham used a piece of his for a dance performance).

In an interview dating back to 1987, on being questioned as to his lifelong obsession with time (he had previously said “time is the last frontier in music”) and his predilection to see time in his musical works as mostly measured “objective time” as opposed to experienced, “subjective time”, Nancarrow very interestingly responds by saying,

In my music there are areas of “objective time” and other areas of “subjective time”, and many where they are combined. Probably the best example of the latter is Study No. 27. I think of the ostinato which goes through the whole piece, as “the ticking of the ontological clock”, and all the things which go on around it as more or less subjective.

As pointed out by Gann, the framework for many of Nancarrow's pieces is the canon, a compositional technique where a musical phrase, a melody, is repeated through imitations after a marked duration. ‘Followers' follow a ‘leader' phrase, and the time relationship between them is where the Nancarrow's staggering artistry reveals itself. Time and time again, to employ a suitable pun.

The scope of conceptual ideas that run through Nancarrow's work is astounding. As Gann has outlined in his book, Study No 20, “Cloud” is a “pointillist study of repeating notes within small ranges”; Study No 22 is a canon (an acceleration canon) wherein voices speed up at different rates; one at 1%, another at 1.5% and so on. Study No 41 is also composed of irrational ratios which employs the cube root of 13/16, the square root of 2/3, etc., which Gann has described as the “strangest gestures of his career.”

The late Jürgen Hocker headed the International Society for Self-Playing Instruments (how wonderful that such an organisation exists). He devotedly archived Nancarrow's work and became a valued advocate. There is a YouTube channel that features Nancarrow's work presented by a restored Ampico player piano. The American composer Charles Amirkhanian did a series of recordings of Nancarrow's work in the late ‘70's. There are several resources on the web for those interested in his work.

In reading about Nancarrow and listening to his works, one is able to grasp what a spiralling obsession can unravel over a long period of practice. It may be characterised in different ways, but for the practitioner it may merely be a way of life, in all its prosaic glory. Indeed, in Conlon Nancarrow's own words:

The term “experimental” is very vague and I am not really sure what it means.