Studies for Player Piano
Conlon Nancarrow
The Original 1750 Arch Recordings
Supervised by the Composer

Other Minds (4 CD set)

I first encountered the original LPs of Nancarrow’s amazingly intricate Studies when I was in college and hosting a new music program on WHPK-FM. Nancarrow’s background (he was in the Lincoln Brigade that fought against Franco’s fascist government in Spain, which made his continued presence in the US untenable), along with his incredibly focused devotion to his music for player pianos (which required a very laborious and time consuming process), was as compelling then as it is today. At that time, however, while I respected his music and genius, his works just didn’t grab me. I was awash in minimalism, coming out of a background in 12-tone music, and Nancarrow’s music didn’t register with me.

My ears have since matured, fortunately. Several years ago, I obtained the Wergo set of the Studies, and I’ve been in love with Nancarrow’s player piano works ever since. Much has been made of the influence Nancarrow’s music had on Ligeti, and it’s easy to see elements of Nancarrow in Ligeti’s later works, particularly the Etudes. To say that Nancarrow’s player piano works are among the most important music of the 20th century is not an understatement.

So if the Wergo set is so good (it is), why bother with this 4-CD set? Because it’s the real deal. All of the recordings were done under the direct supervision of Nancarrow himself, using his own player pianos (“two 1927 Ampico player pianos, one with metal-covered felt hammers and the other with leather strips on the hammers.”), and now digitally remastered. Just as no two pianos are truly identical, no two player pianos have quite the same sound. What you hear on these recordings is exactly what the composer heard in his studio in Mexico. Plus the comprehensive and detailed notes by James Tenney and an essay by Charles Amirkhanian (who produced the set), nicely reproduced from all four original LPs, are by themselves well worth the price.

Of all the studies, my personal favorites are #21 (one of the most amazing compositions, IMHO), #25 (with the famous ending of 1028 notes in 12 seconds that even grabs my daughter’s attention) and #37. Nancarrow was a master of tempo canons, and of canonical writing in general. I didn’t appreciate this when I was in college, and have been making up for lost time in the past few years by listening to as much of Nancarrow’s music as I can get my hands on. If you have any interest at all in new music, buy this album. If you already own a recording of the Studies, buy this album, since it’s as authentic as you can get short of going down to Nancarrow’s studio and playing his piano rolls on the original pianos in real time. I should note, however, that the Wergo album has a few items (like Study 2b and the Tango) that are not included in the 1750 Arch set.

3 Responses to “Nancarrow: Studies for Player Piano (Original 1750 Arch Recordings)”
  1. Kyle Gann says:

    Well also, David, the 1750 Arch – oops, I mean Other Minds – set only goes through Study No. 41, while the Wergo goes through No. 50. Both were recorded on Nancarrow’s piano(s), under his supervision. One advantage of the Other Minds is that the double-piano works (40 and 41) use both Nancarrow’s pianos, whereas by the time they made the Wergo, one of the pianos had quit working, so they recorded both rolls on the same piano and overdubbed. It’s a slight difference. More interesting, perhaps, are the variations in tempos between the two recordings, which are, on the average, slightly slower on the Wergo recording. The Other Minds might give you more fireworks, but in the slower versions you can also hear more of what’s going on.

  2. David Toub says:

    Thanks, Kyle—I probably should have been more explicit about what is not on the Other Minds/1750 Arch release. I like the Wergo set, and think that the differences are not really material to the music, at least in my opinion. But for historical reasons, and the great liner notes alone, I think the Other Minds release is a must have. There’s also that other release using modern pianos, but I haven’t heard it so I can’t comment on that.

    Interestingly, I still haven’t found the source of that “Study No. 2” I found on the Internet. Based on some e-mail discussion I had with Carlos Sandoval, I now think it’s a faux Nancarrow study, and was done via MIDI. It’s a good forgery, though…

  3. What is the general opinion of the recordings on MDG using a Bösendorfer instrument?

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