To look at them unfurled, you would think they are exquisite abstract paper-cut murals – or reams of Braille in a language few can read. To hear them played, you would think a saloon-bar piano and a harpsichord were united in a duet, played by, say, Dorothy Parker and Fats Waller, each egging on the other in feats of virtuosity, wit and occasional vulgarity. Instead, these are the piano rolls meticulously crafted in near obscurity and self-imposed exile by the American composer Conlon Nancarrow. It is wonderful – finally – to have Nancarrow’s original recordings, produced in 1977 in his studio on his original instruments, released on this four-CD set.
There is something incongruous, probably wilful, about the exiled Nancarrow championing an instrument as bourgeois as the player piano, or pianola. ‘Check up the successful people you know’, advises an advertisement from the 1920s, the instrument’s heyday. ‘Invariably you will find that they have music in their homes, generally a player piano.’ And here was Nancarrow, exiled in Mexico City from 1940 as a consequence of his Communist Party affiliations, until his death in 1997, experimenting with the classic instrument of the American aspirant classes – the same people who blanched at his political beliefs.
The obscurity in which he worked lasted until the last decade or so of his life, and it served him well. It made him into another Charles Ives, a composer unwilling to serve up tepid European imitations to a New World twitchy about its cultural relationship with the Old, paradoxically determined to punch considerably below its weight. Isolated from these traditions and from emerging American ones, Nancarrow produced some of the most original musical works of the last century.
He developed two fundamental principles: the first was that a piano roll need not be constrained by human limitations – eight fingers and two thumbs playing at any one time; with a roll-punching machine a composer could introduce as many fingers and thumbs as he or she desired. Second, with such technical freedom Nancarrow emancipated time from its physical constraints. Melodies are placed in elongated or contracted canons with themselves, converging at particular structural points before setting off once more at their own pace. It is a hypnotic technique: individual melodic lines climaxing in a wash of sound – either because of the acceleration written into each line or because one line may start much later than another but take less time to play. These lines then move away from this point of climax, politely refusing to acknowledge each other, not least because of the deceleration written into each of them. It is truly invigorating stuff.
Nancarrow’s music evokes the lost age of American jazz, which held on by its fingernails at least until the Civil Rights movement gained real traction. It is tempting to think that there was a political motivation behind Nancarrow’s selection of source material, but I think it more likely that as a jazz trumpeter in the 1930s he maintained a love of the edge-of-the-seat thrill that comes with great improvisation. No matter the maths and complex metrical relationships he explored in his music, Nancarrow intended his riotous, breathless works to push beyond the understood boundaries of art music.