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The Pianola Journal - Volume 3, 1990.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 3, 1990

  • Editorial
  • Conlon Nancarrow interviewed by Natalie Wheen
  • Shepherd's Hey by Percy Grainger: Rex Lawson
  • The Player Piano on Record - a Discography (Part 1): Denis Hall
  • Pianola Music: Edwin Evans
  • Concert Review
  • Book Review


Conlon Nancarrow interviewed by Natalie Wheen

This interview was first broadcast on the BBC Radio 3 programme, Third Ear on the 18 January 1990, and the transcript is reproduced by kind permission of the BBC.

WHEEN: I know when I first heard a Nancarrow piece it made me think of a mad jazz pianist possessed of superhuman piano technique. Very wide of the mark, I'm afraid. Conlon Nancarrow was never a piano player, well not what we would normally think of as a piano player. He used to play the trumpet. His music comes from a highly complicated brain matched by a virtuoso pair of ears . . . These days, Nancarrow is in demand. He's featured in festivals, given awards and scholarships and fêted by the American authorities who once hounded and persecuted him for having fought with the Lincoln Brigade against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1940, Nancarrow decamped to Mexico which was more civilized about left wing opinions, and he's been there ever since, living in a quiet suburb of Mexico City, doggedly working away, day after day, punching holes in hia player piano rolls. It's been a long, solitary road, even though Mexico City is permanently in a ferment of artistic argument, and it's a place where it is possible for the strangest things to be taken quite seriously. So, when we met at his house, just before lunch (hence the percussion section in the background), I wondered how much the place had worked its effect on him.

NANCARROW: Oh I'm sure Mexico has some - well, it had an effect on me which should have an effect on the music in one way or another. More than Mexico, my influences have been, say, jazz and ethnic music, you might say. Quite a few ethnic musics have appealed to me very much

WHEEN: It's such an extraordinary sense of layers and possibilities and surprises in your music, y et contained within this very formal and very singular tone world - if we come in through the piano pieces for example.

NANCARROW: Well, it is. In fact, that's the one limitation. It doesn't bother me, but that's one of the attractions of electronic music. You can do the same things as electronic music as I can with the piano, and you have all these sounds. As a matter of fact, if I'd started earlier going to mechanical music, if electronic music had existed, I probably would have gone that way. But it didn't even exist. So I got into player pianos. And another thing about electronic music. I like acoustic sounds of live instruments, and electronic music still is not. It's on the edge, but it's still not there.

Shepherd's Hey by Percy Grainger: Rex Lawson

The editorial board of this journal is well aware that a sizeable proportion of its readership does not have immediate access to pianolas or other roll-operated instruments, so that the music mentioned in these pages risks remaining somewaht obscure. It seemed sensible, therefore, to undertake a series of transcriptions of music specially written or arranged for player-piano. Score-reading musicologists and six-handed pianists may find useful additions to their repertoire, but these reconstructions are not intended as practical performing editions. Many pianola manuscripts remain untraced, no doubt thrown out when roll companies ceased trading, so our aim is to recreate their composers' original scores.

An excerpt from "Shepherd's Hey", by Percy Grainger.

Shepherd's Hey is a good example to start with, since it is arguably one of the first pianola compositions of international repute, and since Grainger's manuscript has not been found. By it should be borne in mind that by late 1914, when the rolls of this work were first published, several minor composers had already tried their hands (or feet!) in a similar way.

The Player Piano on Record - a Discography (Part 1): Denis Hall

This discography was planned as a postscript to the article published in Journal No.2, and was intended to include just a few of the better recordings of which the writer was aware. As the project developed, it seemed more sensible to include as many discs as could be traced, and to make recommendations where it was felt this could safely be done. For the rest, enthusiasts can form their own judgement - and perhaps stumble on a real gem which had slipped into obscurity.

This, then, is the pattern which has been followed. As many recordings as could be found have been included. Only those which can be purchased as souvenirs from museums have knowingly been excluded on the grounds that they have never been readily available to the record-buying public, and are often of somewhat dubious quality.

It is inevitable that record companies will only retain recordings in their catalogues if they sell in goodly quantities. It is therefore a sad fact that only one or two of the CDs listed are currently available. This of course does not preclude the student or collector from investigating the second-hand market which is now reaching a very interesting phase when an early LP may have been unavailable from the manufacturer for thirty years or more and be almost as rare as some of the original piano rolls themselves!

Only those discs which the writer has heard and/or knows to be of good reproductions of the rolls have been recommended. Many of the discs were published a long time ago, and the actual sound has not been taken into consideration in making a recommendation, although of course if good copies of the discs can be found, they will be at least acceptable - and far superior sonically to the gramophone's attempts to record the piano in the early years of this century.

No attempt has been made to date the original piano roll recordings. Welte first published rolls in 1905, and the best of even these early ones arc excellent. Duo-Art and Ampico continued to issue rolls in a small way until the outbreak of the Second World War.

The discography is planned in four sections - Welte, Duo-Art, Ampico, and foot-operated player pianos. As with any project of this nature, the writer will be pleased to receive corrections and additions to the listings.

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The Pianola Journal - Volume 4, 1991.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 4, 1991

  • Editorial
  • On the Roll: Rex Lawson
  • 'Ein Traum die Dämmerung': Ernest Newman
  • The Player Piano on Record - a Discography (Part 2): Denis Hall
  • Review: Nancarrow on CD: David Smith
  • Concert Review
  • Book Review


'Ein Traum die Dämmerung': Ernest Newman

This article was first published in The Piano-Player Review, July 1913.

Even at the time I had a suspicion that it was all a dream. It seemed too good to be true.

I remember being at a concert at which the pianist was putting himself to a tremendous amount of trouble to play the Tausig arrangement of Bach's D minor Toccata and Fugue, and not succeeding in playing a quarter as well as the piano-player could do. I was wondering to myself at the strange blindness of some musicians to the march of events under their very noses. There are some pieces that no pianist can ever hope to perform as well as the piano-player: there are others that no piano-player at present imaginable can hope to perform as well as a good human pianist; yet it never seems to occur to public performers that they ought to keep to the latter and avoid the former. I suppose I must have been a bit bored by the performance, for I made no effort to resist the sleepy feeling that was stealing over me; and in another minute or so I was in a world in which the best performance of music has no power to charm, and the worst no power to hurt.

Suddenly I found myself in another and very different concert room - an enormous place, full of people, and with excellent music, excellently played, proceeding from an invisible orchestra and invisible singers. The orchestral tone was singularly pure, and it frequently attained both a pianissimo and a fortissimo that I had never been fortunate enough to hear in my working life: while the dynamic nuances were managed with incredible skill. I listened with increasing amazement to the end. Then I went out and made my way to the back of the hall, to what looked like the entrance for the orchestral players. I was in hopes that I should meet some of them coming out, have a chat with them on the subject of this new and wonderful kind of concert, and discover how it was done. Only two people came out, however; they stopped outside the door for a few moments' conversation, then shook hands, and parted. I followed one of them, apologised for accosting him, explained my difficulty, and begged him to enlighten me. He courteously suggested that we should walk on together, and he would tell me all I wanted to know.

Review: Nancarrow on CD: David Smith

The 50 Studies by Conlon Nancarrow represent the most extensive and ambitious compositional research ever undertaken for the player-piano. The layout of these Studies rarely suggests an extension of human technique; indeed, Nancarrow's reason for turning to the player piano in the late 1940s was to explore those areas of complex rhythm and tempo (as well as sheer speed) which lie far beyond what is attainable by the human pianist. The result is an extraordinarily compelling, utterly individual and often berserk music. These five CDs, recorded on one of Nancarrow's own specially adapted instruments, are no doubt designed to be a definitive document of a body of work unique in twentieth century music.

The later Studies have not been commercially recorded before. The rest have appeared on LP on 1750 Arch Records or on CBS in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The CD recordings are more recent, having been made in January 1988. Definitive though they are, they offer a quite different view from the earlier disc recordings with which many readers will be familiar.

A comparative observation needs to be made about durations. Many of the Studies, though not all, are slower on the CDs, some by only a few seconds, others by rather more. Consider the following timings:

Study No.DiscCD
3c2'23" (Arch)3'02"
233'54" (CBS)4'46"
243'36" (CBS)4'23"
275'27" (Arch)6'29"
282'32" (Arch)3'22"
293'06" (Arch)3'57"
356'15" (Arch)7'36"

A durational increase of some 20-25% seems, on the face of it, pretty alarming, especially if the music is fast, as Nancarrow's usually is. Nevertheless the problem seems not to arise, possibly because the impression of prestissimo is not lost. in any case, I would doubt that many listeners will be disturbed by the apparent discrepancies above. Insofar as Study no. 10 is concerned (4'07" on CBS, 3'03" on CD), the difference is explained by a compositional revision which cut out the original slow blues opening.

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