Summer 2009

Roll Playing

Feeling the machine music of Conlon Nancarrow

Jeff Dolven

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.

It might be said that we mostly understand machines with our bodies. The oil derrick stoops and lifts; the water treatment plant sieves the river through its teeth. We may not have wheels like a bicycle, but we know what it’s like to roll. So perhaps it is the mark of a machine’s maturity, or ours, to defy this reflex—neither to be made in the image of its maker, nor to flatter us with easy analogy to our own movements. By this measure, we would have to admire the music Nancarrow wrote. His studies for player piano are not for pianists; their technical demands do not so much exceed the limits of human performance as simply ignore them. Unplayability may not have been the objective—“Oh, no, not at all; I just write a piece of music. It just happens that a lot of them are unplayable”—but the number, proximity, and arrangement of our fingers are matters of manifest indifference.[3] Sometimes, indeed, it seems that the studies take as little interest in our ears. No amount of training will allow you to identify a polyrhythm in the ratio of 60:61, or to distinguish it from, say, 59:60.

And yet, we like to listen to his music; or at least some of us do. There are even people who, notwithstanding its rigorous unobsequiousness to our manual capacities, like to play it. Some of the simplest studies have been transcribed for a single performer, and others, more demanding, for four hands, or even eight. Whatever the configuration, the challenge the performers assume is to bring these studies—imagined by a man, sounding inescapably like a machine—back within our grasp. In an age of unease about just where the difference lies between our selves and the increasingly various and competent world of the things we have made, Nancarrow offers an occasion for thinking about why you would ever want to sound like a machine. Machines, after all, are mostly built to imitate us, right? What are we up to when we try to imitate them back?

Of the fifty or so studies, Number 6 (the numbering is roughly chronological) is among the most approachable. It is introduced by a fifteen-note ostinato in what, if we did not know better, we might say was the left hand. At first that line seems teasingly irregular, the piano transcript of a failed field sobriety test. But if you were pulled over by the side of the road, and you managed to perform exacting variations on the same stumble over and over again, misstep for misstep, the authorities would eventually have to concede that you were sober—indeed, something more than sober. This slow-dawning rigor turns out to be a function of the fact that the line is written in two different, alternating tempi, four beats and five to a given unit of time, shifting back and forth every four notes. This means that the shifting tempi (in those four-note units) and the line (fifteen notes) are intricately out of phase, so that the same combinatio­n of pitches and time values recurs only every fourth time through. Charming to listen to, fiendishly difficult to play, or even to count out on your knee. On top of this tricky figure rides a melody that the composer Kyle Gann likens to a “‘cowboy’ tune,” full of big intervals and punctuated with ascending and descending scales that have a piano-lesson naiveté.[4] The total effect is disarmingly homely, but the more closely you listen, the more sure you become that it is not to be tried at home.

That alternating of tempi within a single line makes a useful introduction to Nancarrow’s virtuosity, but it is a device he used only a few times; more common is the juxtaposition of two or more lines in different tempi. We can learn to tap out the simplest such polyrhythms on a tabletop, two beats against three or three against four. (Runners may have noticed that as their level of exertion increases, they move from a complete breath, in-out, every four paces, to a breath every three paces, to a breath every two—the middle stage being an elementary polyrhythm, in a ratio of 2:3.) Study Number 19, one of several rhythmic canons, suggests how far beyond our bodies’ rudimentary capacities Nancarrow’s experiments can go. In an ordinary canon, like “Row, row, row your boat,” the staggered start of each singer allows the melody to harmonize with itself. But the tempo each singer keeps is the same, so the lines will never converge; at the end, one voice is always left to sing “life is but a dream” alone. Because Nancarrow’s voices move at different tempi, however, they can converge—a faster line can start later, but race to catch up with its predecessor. So it is with Number 19, the three melodies of which are in the daunting tempo ratio of 12:15:20. Once again, there is a general impression of discoordination, but sharper than in Number 6—a little like being at a party and standing equidistant among three separate, if mutually congenial, conversations. The first line enters in the bass, the second in the middle register, then the third up top (a tactic of pitch separation Nancarrow often used to reinforce their distinctness). The timing of their entrances is such that their different rates propel them to convergence at the very end, as though all of the staggered singers of “Row your boat” were to land on “dream” together. The party suddenly becomes a conspiracy—or, again, betrays itself to be an unsuspectedly precise mechanism, its intimated order made patent at the last minute.

Both of these studies share a Nancarrovian knack for simultaneously engaging and balking our musical sympathies—you may try to tap your foot, even though you cannot keep the time, or times; you may try to sing along, even though the melodies (perhaps not always quite the right word) are made with no regard for the human voice. Then there are other studies that sound like nothing so much as the machine singing to another machine, or to itself. Number 40 is a good example: it makes full use of the superhuman velocities permitted by the Ampico mechanism, with breakneck glissandos and hypercaffeinated trills. But its exuberance is rigorously calculated, the voices organized in a tempo ratio of e (the base of natural logarithms) to π (the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference), roughly 77:87. Not numbers you can readily get up and dance to. We would seem to be in the realm of purely abstract, intellectual pleasure, and our physical estrangement is at least twofold: the music keeps rhythms we cannot grasp, and keeps them with a precision we cannot equal. Still, it remains obscurely charismatic.

Nor is this almost supra-musical complexity the only way the music keeps its wary, beguiling distance from us. There is also the way it was made. The Ampico mechanisms on Nancarrow’s pianos used standard paper rolls, 28.6 centimeters wide, which pass over a pneumatic aperture bar that has as many holes as the instrument has keys (plus some extras for dynamics and pedal effects). When a hole punched in the paper passes over a hole in the tube, the elaborate pneumatic circuitry trips the hammer, and a note sounds. Nancarrow would begin each study by sketching proportions on one of these rolls, marking out his complex ratios, m­easuring the distances with a ruler to establish the time intervals. Working on separate sheets of paper he would fill in the details, then transfer those markings back to the roll in pencil. The result is in some ways more like a picture of the music than a conventionally notated score: the translation from the distance between holes to the time between notes along the length of the roll is intuitive; the number of holes across its width at any given moment is a good indicator of harmonic density. Even more obviou­s, just at a glance, is the fantastic labor required. There may be as many notes in five minutes of Nancarrow as in half an hour of Liszt’s pyrotechnics. And there is little brio in the making: Nancarrow would lay the roll out on a long table, with a spool at either end, one to play it out and one to take it up. Then he would begin to make the holes, pock … pock … pock.

Excerpt from Study No. 36, ca. 1965–1977. The four voices are identical but marked with different tempi; the bass (bottom voice) begins ­alone a­t 85 bpm, the higher voices then chiming in at 90, 95, and 100 bpm respectively. At the musical juncture reprinte­d here, the higher voices have overtaken the lower ones, with the highest voice now in the lead and the bass trail­ing behind. Courtesy Wolfgang Heisig.

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
                                     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.

Nancarrow at work in his Mexico City studio, 1981. Photo Philip Makanna. Courtesy Eva Soltes.

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.

There are perhaps some more ordinary cases, too. Do we become more mechanical at the point of our intersection with a machine—in the regularity demanded of us by the habits of pushing the carriage return on a typewriter (when we used to do that), lifting the handle of the car door, turning the tap? Our pleasure in many of these mechanisms lies in their precision and perhaps in the precision they call from us. Yet such accommodations seem minor in comparison with the circus of animal imitation played out in our interactions with other humans, from the mirroring of a smile to the acquisitive admiration of a stylish coat or a turn of phrase. The same neurons fire when I watch you dance as when I dance myself, the cognitive scientists tell us. I can’t help but dance with you! And perhaps, just perhaps, this assimilating avidity sometimes becomes burdensome; the more so if we take ourselves to live in a world of machines that are also, awkwardly, mimicking us. Perhaps the peculiar charisma of an unaccommodating machine lies here, the austere appeal of a piano radically alienated from the pianist. That machine has an alternative vitality and an alternative alertness, mainly because we can try to imitate it, but it does not try to imitate us, and never has. That would be most unlike our usual affairs, with machines or with one another.

Conlon Nancarrow has had his imitators among composers, Györgi Ligeti most prominent among them; and he certainly had his influences. There was Henry Cowell, and Igor Stravinsky; he had played trumpet in jazz bands, and he listened voraciously to music from the sophisticated rhythmic traditions of Africa and India. His library in Mexico City was well stocked with music journals. But for all that, he was still just about as determinedly insulated and isolated as we would expect a great artist to be. His machines were instrumental to that insulation: they loosened the hold of the body on his music, and it is the body t­hat is always hungriest for other people. His friend and champion John Cage arguably had some overlapping ambitions, but Cage did much of his most iconoclastic work by making room for chance, and Nancarrow took the opposite path, achieving a degree of control and precision that explores the limits of the analogy between automaticity and autonomy. It is curious that we should want to listen to such music, curious that some of us might want it back in our own hands. Or want to forget our hands, or that they are hands at all.

­             oNce you
           wheN you thought of
          you Always
thought of youR own
              Of anybody else’s.
     that’s hoW it happens.­[11]
  1. Henry Cowell, New Musical Re­sources (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1930), pp. 64–65.
  2. Copland quotes Nancarrow’s biography in “Scores and Records,” Modern Music, vol. 15 (March–April 1938), p. 180.
  3. Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982), p. 296.
  4. Kyle Gann, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 87. Gann’s is the most complete and sophisticated study of Nancarrow’s work, and has been a resource here throughout.
  5. Roger Reynolds, “‘Inexorable Continuities…’: A Commentary on the Music of Conlon Nancarrow,” in Peter Garland, ed., Conlon Nancarrow: Selected Studies for Player Piano (Berkeley: Soundings Press, 1977), p. 27.
  6. John Cage, “A Long Letter,” in Nancarrow: Selected Studies, op. cit., p. 25.
  7. Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces, op. cit., p. 299
  8. Ibid., p. 285.
  9. Telephone interview, 9 March 2009.
  10. Henri Bergson, Laughter, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: Macmillan, 1914), pp. 1–21.
  11. John Cage, “Letter,” op. cit., p. 25.

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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