"Last summer I found in a Paris grammophone shop the records of Conlon Nancarrow's music (Vol. 1 and II). I listened and listened and became immediately enthusiastic. This music is the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives...something great and important for all of music history! His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed, but at the same time emotional...for me it's the best of any composer living today." This oft-quoted letter from Gyorgy Ligeti to this boxed set's producer Charles Amirkhanian pinpoints one's visceral reaction to Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano. On a purely physical level, the close-up impact of clattering piano hammers making musicalRead more sounds that are beyond the capabilities of human hands is like nothing else in the world. How do you describe, for instance, Study No. 3a (aka the Boogie-Woogie Suite)? Imagine Albert Ammons trapped in the body of Cecil Taylor, with Earl Hines doing the choreography and Milton Babbitt partitioning out the rhythmic relationships.
Many of the later studies are canons constructed in ratios involving irrational numbers. Yet playful fancy always lurks behind Nancarrow's rigorous strategems. Dry counterpoint will burst out into dry-ice arpeggios or hyperactive repeated chords. Even the earlier, jazz-tinged studies refuse to put the blues on a pedestal. Sometimes a study composed for one player piano is designed to be played simultaneously with another, although the densest single-piano textures often sound as if at least five pairs of overworked hands are (gain)fully employed. Every aspect of Wergo's production reveals care and love, from the extensively detailed notes to the painstaking process of recording each study from Nancarrow's original hand-punched rolls. Wergo's slimmed-down packaging and new five-for-three price tag should attract a wider audience for a body of work without precedent or equal. If you care about new music, Conlon Nancarrow's quirky sound world is a compulsory stop on the way to enlightenment.