Chasing The Melodies Of Conlon Nancarrow

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When people think of the player piano, they usually think of Sting-era ragtime music. But during that era, a composer named Conlon Nancarrow created incredibly intricate pieces for the player piano that sound like a turn-of-the-century roadhouse gone berserk.


If there were ever a composer who could appreciate double Dutch, it's Conlon Nancarrow. The late musician created pieces with dueling melodies and varying rhythms so intricate and so precise that they could only be performed by a machine - the old time player piano.

We end our show tonight with an appreciation and a bit of a music lesson from commentator Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner.

Mr. KEVIN WENG-YEW MAYNER (Commentator): If you're hearing Conlon Nancarrow's music for the first time, you may think you're in one of those western saloons, with a honky-tonk piano gone berserk.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAYNER: There is no question that the music is daunting. The details slip out of your mind's grasp and blur into background noise. It's like you're walking down the middle of a street and hearing music coming from two different cars - one playing a fast beat and the other a slower one.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAYNER: Conlon Nancarrow was writing the early version of a mash-up -combining different melodies and different time signatures. He knew this was too hard for just about anyone to play so he turned to the technology of the day: the automated player piano. It could play his mathematically concocted rhythms with machine-like precision.

(Soundbite of song "Study No. 7 for Player Piano")

Mr. MAYNER: This piece, called "Study No. 7 for Player Piano," starts off with a line of notes moving in small steps, as if walking the fingers up and down the keyboard.

(Soundbite of song "Study No. 7 for Player Piano")

Mr. MAYNER: On top of that, you'll hear a higher line with a lot of flourishes.

(Soundbite of song "Study No. 7 for Player Piano")

Mr. MAYNER: The ideas themselves are simple but since the timing isn't matched, when they come together the result is raucous.

(Soundbite of song "Study No. 7 for Player Piano")

Mr. MAYNER: Part of what makes this music so interesting is trying to chase the melodies in your head, and a few of them pulling against each other, coming into synch and then falling right out again.

(Soundbite of song "Study No. 7 for Player Piano")

Mr. MAYNER: Conlon Nancarrow creates an off-kilter waltz here. One, two, three; one, two, three. But, again, the two lines don't match up. This may conjure up images in your head: two awkward people trying to dance together or a drunk piano player or a drunk robot piano player.

Nancarrow isn't just making fun of the waltz, though. The rhythms are constructed according to complicated musical principles called ice over them. Listen a few times - get past the chaos and you might hear something endearing, almost as if the melody and countermelody are trying to say something beautiful and earnest, but they have to search for the notes to say it.

(Soundbite of song "Study No. 7 for Player Piano")

Mr. MAYNER: By using some basic ideas, like the simple melodies at the beginning and the waltz rhythm, Conlon Nancarrow creates a densely complex piece out of common musical building blocks. It's like a wooden roller coaster. You can watch the simple construction inch past you on that first big climb before plunging into a breathtaking ride.

(Soundbite of song "Study No. 7 for Player Piano")

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