Notes and Editorial Reviews
Bösendorfer Grand Piano with Ampico Player Piano Mechanism (1927)
Fischer Grand Piano with Ampico Player Piano Mechanism (1925)
rec. 19-24 June 2005, Immanuelskirche Wuppertal
A real showstopper.
Conlon Nancarrow is the acknowledged grandfather of any modern player piano ‘school’ which can be said to exist, not only for the fact that he brought the instrument back from almost total obscurity. Having become little more than a footnote in music-instrument history, Nancarrow’s single-minded purpose in using the player piano to explore remarkable compositional techniques and the performance of ‘unplayable’ piano music which is nonetheless approachable and often quite good fun is one of the
great legacies of musical thought and research in the last century, and so it is hardly surprising that composers have been inspired to follow in his footsteps. Ligeti is a notable example of one who responded to Nancarrow’s imagination, and one whose style is eminently suited to some of the extended technical possibilities of the player piano. The realization of all of the remarkable music on this and MDG’s other excellent Nancarrow discs is the work of Jürgen Hocker, who worked closely with Nancarrow and many of the composers on this disc. He has restored his own Ampico-Bösendorfer, performed and promoted Nancarrow’s music all over Europe, and motivated and created the possibility for commissions from new generations of composers.
Something akin to the seemingly infinite possibilities in electronic music, the player piano is a musical playground which requires careful use unless it is to become a kind of ego-trip fantasy fairground. Fortunately for us, Hocker and MDG have used sensitivity and discretion in the composers and works which are presented here. True, there is plenty of madness and some heavy piano-bashing which may drive many up the wall, but if you know and appreciate the work of Nancarrow then you will most certainly want to extend your appreciation of his remarkable instrument. Many of the works here are remarkable, some incredible, some great fun, others more enigmatic and heavier on the brain, but all have their own rewards and share that sense of pioneering experiment which seems to be a built-in feature of the player-piano.
Earliest of the works here is James Tenney’s Music for Player Piano, which is rich in the avant-garde spirit of its time. Both of Tenney’s works owe a technical debt to Nancarrow, the first being a sequence presented in its ‘normal’, and subsequently inverted form. The Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow reveals much in its title, but the effect is quite startling, like Glenn Branca’s overtone music. The piece is a rhythmic canon with 24 voices, building steadily until the texture is saturated with an impossible density of notes on one monumental chord.
Tom Johnson’s work is often minimalist and monothematic in terms of themes and ideas, and his Study for Player Piano is ‘as much music as possible with as little effort as necessary.’ Instead of rows of perforations, Johnson uses continuous slits in the piano roll, resulting in pure glissandi or absolute clusters over 40 notes. This is another remarkable effect, but the musical rewards are ultimately mechanical rather than anything else.
Daniele Lombardi’s Toccata for Player Piano is another spectacular experiment with ‘some of the peripheral aspects of the mechanical system, such as unplayable elements and the mirroring of complex patterns.’ The work is indeed impressive, but actually sounds fairly approachable to a skilled piano duo or duet. More interesting to my mind is some of the work of Steffen Schleiermacher, whose mad sound palette includes prepared ‘percussion’ piano effects. His pieces involve two player pianos, which engagingly contrast different rhythms and effects, often with a good deal of humour. This is reflected in some of the titles, such as the incredible and highly entertaining Björk’s://prep@red pl@yer pi@no p@ir p@s@c@gli@, and The Loneliness of the Key in the Lock, in which identical material from the standard player piano is gradually taken over by that of the prepared instrument. Other highlights come from Schleiermacher’s oeuvre is from his excellent set of studies, the Fünf Stücke für Player Piano. These works were originally conceived for fairground organ but were essentially re-written for the player piano, and the influences on Ligeti and Nancarrow are freely acknowledged by the composer, who has a knack of making the impossibly technical bravura of the player piano both approachable and enjoyable by throwing all kinds of eclecticism into the mixture.
Krzysztof Meyer, a Polish composer whose work includes larger scale symphonic and choral work, introduces different colours to the music with the addition of a synthesizer for Les Sons Rayonnants. The synthesizer part was originally intended for live woodwinds, but this turned out to be too difficult to realise in performance. Meyer’s work has a different feel and atmosphere to the ‘crash bang wallop’ of some of the other pieces, grand though they are. The contrast is welcome, but the synthesizer sounds often sound a bit weedy and redundant next the butch percussiveness of the two player pianos. I’m not sure what effect the original concept would have sounded like, but Meyer and Hocker could always go all out and synchronise the pianos with another live instrument, say, a decent barrel organ. Many of the artificial sounds are pipe based, and percussion effects are also a feature of such instruments: maybe not quite ‘The Busy Drone’ in full cry, but speakers next to live instruments are often problematic (and yes, that opening tune is Alec Templeton’s Bach goes to Town!).
Talking of Bach, Marc-André Hamelin takes us further with a remarkable Solfeggietto a cinque after C.P.E. Bach, which reminded me a little of Bob James’ experiments with Scarlatti on the Moog synthesizer. This is a kind of extended or hyper-Bach, de-humanised and brought into entirely different realms, but fascinating and refreshing nonetheless. Hamelin’s Pop Music transports us with a tremendous adaptation and development of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, whose obsessional repetition, jazzy interjections and cumulative build-up towards the end create a romp almost beyond imagining. Just when you thought the player piano could be taken no further, Hamelin gives us the Circus Galop for two player pianos. This showstopper has elements of Gershwin, Gottschalk, Grainger and Gawd knows who else, and as a novelty item is worth the price of this disc on its own. Hamelin freely admits that the reason for having two player pianos is that there are too many notes for the pneumatic system of one instrument to cope with, and the building crescendos are describes as human pyramids, that of the coda having ‘each added member juggling something different, and ending with a fatal accident’.
Heavens, this is a cracker of a CD. MDG’s production is well-nigh perfect as ever, with extensive booklet notes by Jürgen Hocker and some of the composers, and an exemplary recording. As ever with this series, the motor noise of the air pumps for the player pianos has been eliminated by placing them in a room outside the recording location, an attractively roomy church acoustic which gives the music an appealing concert setting without clouding the detail through having too much resonance. The use of two instruments provide some spectacular antiphonal/stereo effects for the hi-fi buffs and the music, while sometimes a little wild and abrasive, is more often than not stimulating and life-enhancing, to my mind at least. The end of Circus Galop made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it, and I know this will be one of those soundtracks I can always turn to for the darker moments in life, like having to clean the cat box or losing the tax returns.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Pop Music? by Marc-André Hamelin
Period: 20th Century
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