Conlon Nancarrow and the Studies for Player Piano

Studies for Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow is a collection of experiments and explorations in music by American composer Conlon Nancarrow.  The pieces were punched into a scroll of perforated paper to be read by a player piano, and are near impossible to be performed otherwise due to their complexity.  These pieces went unnoticed until the 1980s, nearly forty years later, when he then received the MacArthur “Genius” Award along with 300,000 dollars, along with a biography being published about him.

Many of his studies use odd and irrational rhythmic ratios, which take heavy influence from Henry Cowell’s New Music Resources.  Cowell suggests in his book that the tempo ratios could potentially be carried out by a player piano, and thus Nancarrow used his father’s money to buy a player piano.  Two examples of these odd ratios are seen in Study No. 41A and 41B, whereas the ratio in 41A is Canon 1 √π √2/3, and the ratio in 41B is Canon 1 3√π 3√13/16.  One of Nancarrow’s pieces was, however, performed via living human, something seemingly impossible.  Study No. 33 uses a Canon √2/2 ratio, and was arranged by Paul Usher, and performed successfully by the Arditti String Quartet.  Other studies have been arranged and performed as well, but the majority have relatively simple ratios, such as 3:4.

Nancarrow also explored pitch ratios as well.  In Study No. 28, the ratios of the chromatic scale are used to set the tempo.  Kyle Gann calls this, “Scalar Acceleration”.


If this all doesn’t make his music seem complex enough, the third major ratio use in Nancarrow’s work is in structure.  This is where the use of canons comes into play.  The ratios create the positioning of the isorhythmic patterns.  For example, in Study No. 8 the second voice enters halfway through the first voice’s pattern, and the third three-quarters of the way through the second pattern’s, and so on throughout the harmonic overtone series. Nancarrow’s use of the overtone series also relates back to Cowell’s New Music Resources, where he explains the infinite amount of overtones produced by a single tone  It is evident the influence that Cowell had on Nancarrow, and how Nancarrow brought Cowell’s musical ideas to life in such an ingenious and avant-garde way.

However technically creative and complex his music may be, it most likely will turn off the average listener.  To many, his music is most likely not listenable, as it is very avant-garde and dissonant, which is the point.  He did not write these pieces to be popular and accessible, he wrote them simply to see how far he could go with his and Cowell’s ideas. That being said, he deserves more appreciation for his experimentation and groundbreaking feats that he accomplished in music, even if many dislike how they sound.


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Al Dimeola

Al Dimeola is a jazz guitarist from New Jersey.  He attended Berklee, where his career started when he was hired by Chick Corea.  From there, he went on to become a highly acclaimed jazz fusion guitarist.  His album Elegant Gypsy is notable for incorporating jazz, latin, and rock elements.  Later in his career, Al Dimeola switched over to a Latin acoustic style of guitar playing, abandoning jazz fusion as a whole.  I am only going to discuss his fusion, though his acoustic playing holds up just as well.  Specifically, his song Race with Devil on Spanish Highway, which intrigues me because of its progressiveness.

You might want to listen to it first:

It begins with Anthony Jackson playing a fast, heavy bass riff along with a solid Latin influenced drum beat, with courtesy to Lenny White  After the guitar comes in, there are a few breaks where he goes up and down the C# Locrian scale, in sync with the drums and bass, which is common in jazz fusion.  Following several repetitions of this riff, with additional guitar licks here and there, the song breaks down into a slow melody with the keyboard entering as well.  This is in complete contrast with the intro, as this melody is lighter and in a higher octave.  Then, after a solo, the main melody of the song begins. A few other short solos by the keyboard and guitar happen near the end of this section.  What is important about these solos is that although they are fast, they still manage to fit with the mellow vibe coming from the melody.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the song speeds up to double time.  The riff he plays is fast, faster than any of the riffs played previously in the song.  The guitar then goes back to the main melody, but as he is playing at the same speed he was before, the drums keep in the double time while playing an intricate polyrhythmic groove.  Then, the breaks come in.  It is still the main melody, but the last note is short and the whole band breaks for a measure.  This is the third time he has changed the song up, whilst keeping the same exact melody.  It continues to build up, with Dimeola soloing over the rest of the band.  His playing here is insane.  Suddenly, the band cuts out while the keyboard keeps on soloing and the song slows down a ton.  The band then starts playing a mix of two riffs from before.  Al Dimeola does another solo over the bass playing the main melody again, and the keyboard plays a new melody.  Going back to the quick middle section, there are a few more solos over the fast riff, then suddenly they play the intro again.  Now, when the quick Locrian guitar break comes in, the bass and guitar play it for much longer, with a harpsichord coming in.  Another break down into what is the outro of the song, with a fierce guitar/piano riff under Dimeola’s final solo of the song.  

This well-structured song is a perfect example of Al Dimeola’s fusion of Latin jazz and rock.  While others like Carlos Santana had done this before, they in no way compare to Dimeola’s approach to the style.  Another thing that is notable about Al Dimeola is how young he was, as he was only 19 when Chick Corea hired him.  Since then, he has released over 36 albums.

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