Issue 34 Testing Summer 2009
Sixty-four pages into his 1930 manifesto of rhythmic experimentation, New Musical Resources, the composer and music theorist Henry Cowell made a passing suggestion about how his more extravagant ideas might be realized: “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.”1 As far as we know, only one man took him up on the proposal, an expat American card-carrying communist jazz trumpeter and polyrhythmic prodigy named Conlon Nancarrow. But this man made it his life’s work.
Nancarrow’s early years are summarized in a laconic biography from the January 1938 edition of New Music:
“Born 1912, Texarkana, Arkansas. Studied at Cincinnati Conservatory
for two years. Worked way to Europe in 1936. No job since return. Went
to Spain to help fight Fascism.” “There is nothing to do but hope for
his safe return,” wrote a sympathetic Aaron Copland at the time.2
Return Nancarrow did, after two years of fighting, but hardly to a
hero’s welcome: the US government, suspicious of the politics of the
Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans, refused to renew his passport, and
meanwhile, on the New York music scene, the rhythmic complexity of his
work made for some catastrophically unhappy performances. Goaded by a
combination of political and musical frustration that was to serve him
well all his life, Nancarrow decamped for Mexico City in 1940. A few
years later, he procured a pair of Marshall & Wendell upright
pianos, equipped with Ampico reproducing mechanisms, and began a
forty-year career of composing for machines.
When he first began these labors, in 1947, Nancarrow made a trip to New York to look into pianos and punching machines. He had a copy made of a machine he found in the Bronx, but that punch moved on a ratcheted track, so when he got home he hired a Mexican machinist to replace the ratchets with a freely sliding scale that gave him complete flexibility in setting the rhythmic ratios. Even with these improvements, the work was painstaking: eight months of punching to produce five minutes of music. The rolls, moreover, were not a medium that permitted much trial and error: patching greatly increased their fragility, and Nancarrow avoided it as best he could. He did not typically hear the music until the last hole had been made, and he finally fed the roll into the machine: “After I finish punching a piece and before I put it on, you have no idea how excited I am. …What is going to happen?”5 It is difficult to imagine a process that does more to maximize the distance between composing the music and performing it. No one could read Nancarrow’s rolls except Nancarrow and his own modified pianos, and he kept the pianos silent until the roll was complete. Between the pock of the punch and the sound of the note, months might elapse.
In 1976 John Cage wrote a little mesostic for Conlon Nancarrow, which begins:
the musiC yOu make isN’t Like any Other: thaNk you.6
For all his reclusiveness, Nancarrow admired Cage’s conviction that “you have to put on a performance,” and once, in his Mexico City years, he was persuaded to bring his pianos out in public, to a concert hall at Bellas Artes.7 The occasion was another disaster, spectacularly unperformative, and anyhow attended mostly by friends who had already heard his work. For a long time after that, anyone who was interested had to go to the studio and listen in situ to the thunderous din of the old uprights: hard, bright, loud, their hammers modified with tacks or strips of steel. Over time, as pilgrimages by other American composers increased, and interest spread, Nancarrow was approached to write for humans. For a long time he refused: “I’d have to start thinking again: Does the hand reach there? Can it go here? The whole thing. No, no. You know, when I do these things for player piano, I just write music; and the notes go here, there, wherever. I don’t have to think about anything else.”8 I just write music: perhaps the music he just wrote was itself the machine, indifferent to us, like the music of the spheres on their regular, polyrhythmic rounds. In any event, the recording tradition has honored his reticence: successive discs for Columbia, Arch, and most recently Wergo have been made with his instruments, in his studio. All the same, people have wanted to play his music. The American pianist Yvar Mikhashoff made an early arrangement of Number 15 for four hands—he got to know Nancarrow, visiting him in Mexico City, and near the end of the composer’s life even persuaded him to try writing for humans again. Two of Mikhashoff’s students, Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams, took up their teacher’s work after his death, and working first with the composer Erik Oña and then on their own, they arranged several more of the player piano studies. They have become energetic evangelists for Nancarrow’s music, and to watch them at the keyboard is a jolting and exhilarating experience. The repertory of gesture is uncommonly jerky, past the point of any syncopation, and the absence of ordinary grace will make you powerfully aware of how physical movement in performance and music’s power to move us are bound up in one another. What is an arpeggio if not the even sweep of the arm across the keyboard? Even if you are listening on your headphones, in the dark, don’t you hear it with your fingers? To say nothing of how, when we see two or more players together, we delight in their mutual responsiveness, and in our own. Nancarrow’s music goes a long way to breaking these circuits. When Bugallo and Williams play Number 6, you might expect one of them to play that tricky ostinato down at the bottom, the other to handle the cowboy tune. But no: they divide each, arms crossing and recrossing, so that the ostinato is segregated between them by tempo. Such segregation is necessary to get what Williams calls “the sound of the independence.” Playing such music is unlike playing almost anything else. “The rhythmic element is not kind,” Williams says: not accommodating, and maybe just not like us, not kin to any of the rhythms we make by our breathing, walking, talking.9 With most of the studies, even the slightest rhetorical indulgence will make everything fall apart. Playing the music as a duo therefore requires a rigorously attentive dissociation. “You listen, and you don’t listen” to one another, Williams observes. Bugallo elaborates: “If you don’t listen, you are lost, and if you listen too much, you are lost as well, so it’s a very strenuous state of mind, which makes you remember always that it is actually mechanical music in nature. We keep playing these pieces and they never get easy or comfortable. They were conceived to be played by a machine.” Latitudes of expressiveness on the one hand, and the trance or zone cultivated by performers of minimalist music (like that of Philip Glass or Steve Reich) on the other, are equally forbidden. That seems to be the pleasure: an unusually strict, not at all mystical submission; self-forgetting without transcendence. Now, as we know, machines don’t have consciousness. That is the difference between them and us. But if they did, perhaps this exceptional alertness, which is nonetheless interdicted both from expression and ecstasy, might be what their consciousness is like. And perhaps that would be a feeling we could want to have.
So, how strange, how singular is that want; how peculiar to this music? When else do we imitate our machines? Perhaps on assembly lines, where our movements suffer the routinized reductions of the pin factory—a destruction of consciousness, we tend to think, rather than a new area of its potential. Another, odd possibility is suggested by Henri Bergson’s account of comedy as a rigidity in human behavior bordering on the mechanical.10 There is something to the idea: we laugh at (and we do laugh at) one another’s too-rigid failures of grace; perhaps that laughter is connected to the unsettling experience of watching someone in the grips of a repetitive compulsion, or someone possessed. We may be laughing away that anxiety about our own loss of freedom. These are darker instances. On the other side of the balance, we might place painters, like Richard Estes, whose objective is achieving the particular realism not of the world but of the photograph. Or stories of prisoners in World War II who became exquisite manual mimics of the typewriter in order to forge documents. Neither of these cases, however, entails being like the machine, only imitating its products by means of old-fashioned craft. A better analogy might be to a choreographer like Douglas Dunn, many of whose dances reproduce the angular efficiencies of machine movement. The dancers get to experience a precision and repetition and jerkiness that together pretend their mechanism is made of other stuff, with other tolerances, than our soft tissues.
oNce you sAid wheN you thought of musiC you Always thought of youR own neveR Of anybody else’s. that’s hoW it happens.11
Jeff Dolven teaches English at Princeton University. He is the author of Scenes of Instruction (University of Chicago Press, 2007), and his poems have been published in the Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. With D. Graham Burnett, he organizes the Poetry Lab series at Cabinet’s event space.
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