Studies for Player Piano
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.