Das pianola
Letter excerpts

The following are a few brief excerpts from letters regarding the genesis of Nancarrow’s Pianola Concerto followed by some notes about the sketches and the ‘Nancarrow Concerto’ taken from an article I wrote for the Journal of the Pianola Institute

1981: ‘..a piece for player piano and live performers has too many problems…’
Letter from Nancarrow to Rex Lawson Feb 3rd1986: ‘I will think about doing a concerto for you…’ & May 25th1987 [hopes to start concerto soon]

1986: ‘After hearing what performers can do now I am thinking of doing a concerto for Pianola with that fantastic Pianola virtuoso [Rex Lawson]

1986: ‘ It would be wonderful if you could write a Concerto for Pianola and orchestra for Rex Lawson. He is a very engaged Pianolist and a great admirer of your music. I might ask Dr. Becker from the WDR if it is possible to give you an order for this composition!’
Letter from Nancarrow to Dr. Becker October 19th 1986: ‘...I have been thinking about the Conc. For Pianola. However, I am very busy now…follow Stravinsky’s advice: Compose a piece and then get it commissioned. I do not work well under pressure…

1989: ‘…The piece will be a concerto for pianola and large orchestra, including a sizable percussion section…Probably the maximum number of tempi at any given moment would be about eight. Of course, most of the time, less…Any given instrument or group of instruments would not be always playing at the same tempo.
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The relationship between Study 49 and the Concerto

Study 49 is in 3 movements, a, b, and c and is based on tempo ratios derived from a Major triad C-E-G (4-5-6). From looking at the punching scores, and taking the nature of the music into consideration, I would guess that a and b are contemporaneous and that c was written considerably earlier. Study 49c is rhythmically much more inflexible than a and b, written in the ‘grid’ style common to the earlier studies before Nancarrow’s punching machine was modified to permit continuous gradations of measurement.

Like many composers Nancarrow appears not to have wanted to waste anything that he had written and when he became better known during the 1980s and had requests for more pieces than he had time to write it would be likely that he rummaged through his workshop for old unused pieces – ones that could conceivably be played by humans – to be used as the basis of new pieces.

To my mind 49c is a less subtle piece than the other two although it does have something of the character of a cadenza, and perhaps, although this is pure speculation, this is what attracted Nancarrow to it for use in the Concerto.

Whether Nancarrow attempted to use this material for the Concerto and then adapted it to make another study, or wrote the Study and then tried to use it in the Concerto – we don’t know. However, this practice is not unknown in his output (for instance Study 50/Piece for Small Orchestra No. 2). It seems to me that Nancarrow wrote the Study first and then made some attempts to use it as the basis of the Concerto.

Kyle Gann describes Study 49 a, b, &c as ‘inner movements’ of a projected piece for which the outer movements were never written [see interview with Charles Amirkhanian]– it would be a very strange piece if this were the case. It is also quite hard to imagine Study 49a or c as the final Pianola part of accompanied movements also, though others may disagree.

The sketches

What emerges from the sketches is a piece to be based on harmonic tempo templates: A3 - C4 - E4 - G4 - Bb4 - D5 - F5 - Ab5 [3.33-4-5-6-7-9-11-13], - the eight tempi mentioned above. These tempi could be derived from Study 49c where the C Major chord (C4,E4,G5) is often sustained from the up-rushing chromatic scales. There are several sketches where Nancarrow has marked out many pages of manuscript paper with these templates, although he never uses the fastest two (bars divided into 11 & 13)

In one of the folders of un-identified material held at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel I found approximately nine items that are definitely or probably related to the Concerto. Some of these are described below:

Movement 1.

A large sheaf of paper with a percussion canon beginning with Timpani, then Congas, Temple Blocks and Wood Blocks. After this the theme from Study 49a appears in modified form on Trombone/Tuba, followed by two further entries (Tpt/Hn? – WW?).

Movement 2

Two large sheafs of paper marked with all tempo ratios up to Ab5. One of these proceeds mechanically, notating an ostinato pattern of 3-3-4-2-4, maintaining the same pitches in each line. It seems that Nancarrow realised that he had made a mistake quite early on pushing one of the lines out by an 1/8th note. In the second version the ostinati are transposed at various places.

Movement 3

Large paper labelled ‘Con. A3’ (referring to the lowest template?). Introduction to final movement with indications for instrumentation – Bass – Marimba – Horns etc. Percussion follow gradually slower tempi while groups of brass and wind follow gradually faster ones. This fragment ends with a bar of Study 49c.


Nancarrow Concerto


Movement 1

In my piece I begin with the Timpani sketch as a basis but have more or less written a pastiche of it as the basis of further elaboration. The 2nd Percussionist and Prepared Piano are used to suggest something of Nancarrow’s original conception . I felt that the entry of the Study 49a theme did not work here – all the energy was dissipated. Instead I have taken a fragment of the end of Study 49a and telescoped the whole movement out of it, generating about thirty different versions which gradually accelerate over the course of the movement. Over this I wrote a complex Pianola canon using the 3-3-4-2-4 rhythmic motif as a basis. Approximately half way through the movement there is a pause and there begins a canon on the strings based on one of the sketches – (while this canon gets under way the Pianolist must change the roll and then re-coordinate with the ensemble – the noise of the roll winding back is also part of the piece – an extra bit of percussion!) - this canon is extended and dove-tails with the ‘telescope’ process leading to the super-human chaos of the movements close.

Movement 2

One of the sketches based on the 13th chord tempi was an ostinato based on a repeating series of 3-3-4-2-4 along with a little minor 3rd motive. I noticed that this sketch had almost exactly the same number of bars as Study 49b and that the key scheme closely matched the Study, following a cycle of fifths. The second half was not such a close match which may be explained by the fact that the second half of the Study exists in at least three different versions – the final score as written by Nancarrow does not match the punching score (and therefore the recording). I edited the second half and completed the ending (about three bars). This movement is the closest to what Nancarrow may have written – in fact I have only edited it and composed about 3 additional bars.

Movement 3

This movement is completely original although inspired by a procedure found in Study 33 and which I also use in my Second String Quartet. This is where canonic voices begin simultaneously but are swapped over at a specific point in order that they can converge. I have added my own twist to this in that there is continuity in the music at the switch-over point, meaning that there are seemingly random interjections earlier or later in the canonic process.

If the 1st movement sees the Pianola as a super-human note making machine and the second is a more or less neo-classical interpretation, then the 3rd is where I feel the true potential of the Pianola begins to be felt. This is because the Pianolist can follow the conductor in one tempo but what comes out of the piano is entirely different – so very complex tempo relationships can be precisely played. (The possibilities for the use of the Pianola in ensemble contexts, (not just as a soloist), is of great interest and seems to have been very little exploited).

So here the Pianola plays a series of three ‘switch-over’ canons in metres designed to closely approximate irrational tempo relations (ΦF/2 - √v3/2 - √v5/2). At each convergence point a little ‘ritornello’ is played by the brass. Across these canons the Ensemble plays the music of the first canon at different tempi – the piano ghosts the Pianola at first, then after the first convergence point a percussion version is played and finally starting with the third canon the woodwind play their version, converging at the end, - the movement finishes with the brass ritornello alone.

Movement 4

Nancarrow’s introduction survives almost intact, though re-orchestrated for the smaller ensemble. What follows is a completely original three voice canon on the Pianola written in conjunction with an elaboration of all remaining sketches played by the ensemble, (similar to the third movement in using approximations to irrational tempo relationships (√v13 - ∏? - √v7)) and precisely co-ordinated. Of the ensemble part, only the climax of the movement is newly written, the rest being pieced together from the sketches, voices being discretely completed/extended/edited where necessary. The piece ends with a brief coda – almost an anti-cadenza where the Pianola plays simply and quietly.