Saturday, December 21, 2013

Where There's A Will, There's A Way

Or, the modern day composer refuses to die!
The Solstice, the cosmic alignment, the last night of the ecstadistic ritual celebration of Zappadan. Today is Frank Zappa's birthday, who cares what year he was born...Frank only becomes more
Conlon Nancarrow in his studio in Mexico
timeless as we mere mortals pay attention to the paltry reality of...time! It is the pataphysical reality, the astronomical alignment of the signs in the universe we inhabit that matter. We are bound to observe signs and portents and pay attention to the various astral configurations in this glorious constellation. One of the astral figures that Frank paid attention to was the great American composer, Conlon Nancarrow...who you probably have never heard of. But as Frank said, "The Modern Day Composer Refuses To Die!" Nancarrow was born in 1912 in Texarkana, Arkansas. He was a communist jazz musician who played trumpet and volunteered to go to Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and fight in the Spanish Civil War. After being interned by the French after being liberated as a prisoner of War in 1939, he became en mired in the political legal complications that many of the idealistic young fighters had in re entering the USA because of their political beliefs. He moved to Mexico in 1940 and became a Mexican citizen in 1955. Her was never allowed to re enter the USA as a resident because he refused to hypocritically recant his political ideology and beliefs. He came to America a few times to accept awards and appear at festivals celebrating his music, but he finally died in Mexico City in 1994.

I had heard some of his work years ago. He was a revolutionary composer who embraced and pushed the technology of his world. His medium? Player Pianos! Nancarrows composed many pieces using the mechanically punched rolls of paper to create music that was physically impossible. or so he thought, for utter humans to replicate. He was influenced by the writings and work of Henry Cowell and began to think about the possibilities of electronic music. He continued to compose music for a few years, but found, especially in the more traditional musical world of Mexico City, that it was impossible to have it performed. By a stroke of luck. in 1947, he inherited enough money to allow him to travel to New York City and buy a custom-built manual punching machine to enable him to punch the piano rolls. The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism and covering the hammers with leather (in one player piano) and metal (in the other) so as to produce a more percussive sound. On this trip to New York, he met Cowell and heard a performance of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (also influenced by Cowell's aesthetics), which would later lead to Nancarrow modestly experimenting with prepared piano in his Study No. 30. 

Nancarrow's work reflected a new awareness of technological assistance in composition and the performance of music. His work began to fuse the 20th century avant garde advances in tonalities, the sense of rhythmic  freedom and improvisation of jazz with the imagined goal of the precision that technological freedom he could obtain with total control of his medium. In his rather isolated world, he was unable to find musicians who could play what he composed, so he found a real freedom in a technological approach that the mechanically punched musical rolls gave him. But of course in reality, when there is a will there is a way. Many of Nancarrow's scores have been transposed and performed by real humans. For example, this arrangement of his study #7, performed by the Intergalactic Contemporary Ensemble in 2002:

Listening to this composition makes it easy to see why Frank Zappa often referred to Nancarrow as a major influence. The mechanical compositional precision of Nancarrow is a major factor in Zappa's orchestral composition. In 1986, Frank Zappa released a recording called Jazz From Hell. Interestingly enough, it was his one recording that got him a Grammy. It was almost entirely a solo project, except for a few live guitar tracks integrated into a few pieces. Everything else was composed and performed, track by track by Zappa on revolutionary Synclavier sampling keyboard. He had even stated that he was trying to create music that could not be performed by humans. But, as we have seen before, where there is a will there is a way. When in 1992, he was commissioned to put together a series of symphonic concerts called The Yellow Shark with the German  Ensemble Modern, the group of musicians asked for an arrangement of G-Spot Tornado. Zappa provided the score and conducted the piece and The Ensemble proved that it not only could be performed by humans, but choreographed as well: 

Pretty cool, huh? It was Zappa's last live appearance, he was tragically ill with cancer at the time and was dead with in a few months. But the real reason for this piece, the connection was a link from the great Mexican bass player and composer, Carlos Medina Mendoza who met Nancarrow a few times shortly before his death and sent me the link for this mash up by Nancarrow of Zappa's composition, Willie The Pimp, with Captain Beefheart's vocals, re imagined by Nancarrow. At the beginning of the piece you canhear him laughingly say, "This is really folkloric!"

Is that enough music appreciation for you boys and girls? You want more? Hey whats the name of this blog?

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