Academic journal article Music Theory Online

The Editing and Arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Disklavier and Synthesizers

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

The Editing and Arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Disklavier and Synthesizers

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

[1.1] Conlon Nancarrow's compositional output from 1948 until his death in 1997 was primarily for the two player pianos in his studio in Mexico City. Until 1985, when his compositions began to be played on other instruments, the only way to hear his work was on recordings.(1) Beginning in 1985, with Clarence Barlow's sequencing on a Marantz Pianocorder, followed in 1986 by my work with Rick Bidlack on a Yamaha Disklavier and Jürgen Hocker's restoration of an instrument with an Ampico (American Piano Company) mechanism, audiences could hear Nancarrow's Studies performed "live." This article presents examples of the arrangement of selected Studies for player pianos and synthesizers. I will consider arrangements by Barlow, Trimpin, and Martin Schlumpf, along with my own work which involves editing and arranging MIDI data of selected Studies for Yamaha's Disklavier player piano and its accompanying synthesizer module.

[1.2] An alternative approach involves live performance on acoustic instruments. Musicians such as Yvar Mikhashoff, and later his students Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams, arranged some of the more manageable Studies for one or more pianists in order to expand the repertoire and incorporate human expression. Nancarrow was not opposed to live performance of his works as long as the pieces were played well. He had chosen to compose primarily for player piano after unsatisfactory experiences with musicians who were unable to play his music accurately, and he stuck with it over the years as his interest in flexible time grew.

[1.3] The approach to composition of defining a list of notes (in Nancarrow's case punching them on a paper roll) that specify pitch, timing, and duration, which are then played on an instrument of one's devising (in his case, on a piano with hardened hammers) was similar to the first computer music programs Max Mathews started developing in 1957 at Bell Laboratories. Mathews' series of Music N computer music languages divided input into specifications of virtual instruments and a list of notes to be played on them. This approach of using one mechanism to store data and another to perform it was repeated in 1983, with the specification by synthesizer manufacturers of a computer music system designed for consumers: the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. A MIDI sequencer performs the function of the player piano's punched roll, and a MIDI synthesizer replaces the piano.

[1.4] MIDI is a natural environment to study and realize Nancarrow's compositions because it is so similar to the way a player piano makes music. It also has some advantages over punched rolls. Note messages are stored in the digital memory of a computer instead of being punched on paper, making them easier to enter, edit, copy, and share. MIDI also has 16 different channels, the timbres of which can be set up with program changes. Once the data from Nancarrow's compositions is converted to MIDI format the arranger must decide what acoustic or electronic instrument to use to play it, and how to set it up. This article deals primarily with the process of converting the information controlling dynamics on the rolls into MIDI data, and the issues that are involved in setting up instruments to play it on.

2. Nancarrow's Instruments

Figure 1. Piano 1, with wood surrounded by felt, covered with a leather strap, and finished with a metal fastener (Sandoval 2012)

Figure 2. Piano 2, with wooden hammers finished with a metal strap (Sandoval 2012)

[2.1] Information about Nancarrow's instruments provides important context for decisions about the editing and arrangement of his works. Nancarrow experimented with a number of approaches to intensify the rhythmic effects he could get from his instruments. He tried constructing a percussion orchestra that could be controlled by piano rolls, but was never able to solve the engineering problems to supply sufficient air pressure. …

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