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.


Sources and Further Reading:


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