Conlon Nancarrow

Nancarrow in 12 channels



My writings on Nancarrow

Studio & Libraries

Details on the Study 21

My Work as the Composer's Assistant



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How and when did you meet Nancarrow?

In 1986 I was invited to a “premier” of one new Study in his house. My composition teacher, Julio Estrada invited me to this. We both were actually the only audience. It was an amazing experience and privilege for me, not just to listen for the first time the music of Nancarrow, but to get acquainted to the man, his studio and his instruments in one single session. It was shocking.


How came the idea to your mind to work as Nancarrow's assistant?

He asked me to work for him. At the beginning was just a organizational job in his studio, but little by little became a music-related work. It took some time until I was acquainted enough with the punching machine and Nancarrow’s compositional techniques, tough.


What about the idea to play music in 12 Channels that was originally created for one source?

I was inspired by visual aspects in the roll of the study 37. I saw in this roll a kind of “tri-dimensional” conception of music. Some of the canons in this study look like “in perspective” and they suggest this tri-dimensional conception. Another issue has relationship with the sonic perception of the music. As far as the canon 37, and some other studies, is a very complex polytemporal, and polyphonic piece, I thought would be a good idea to facilitate the listener the perception of each voice and its function in the macro structure. As far the experience in Berlin showed, the spatialization of the piece adds also another dimension, the sense of space movements within the piece throughout the voices and its relationships. In this way, we added an extra voice to the canon: a “space” voice.


The Study 37 is composed of many sub compositions, the canons. How many of then are there and how do they "work together" to be ONE piece in the end?

The piece is made of 12 short canons. How they work together in such magnificent manner still is a mystery to me. But so far, I think is not only a genius matter or an inspirational issue. There are some very strict rules in the composition of any canon, and these rules should be totally consequent all along the piece. To avoid a direct "suite style, Nancarrow sometimes overlapped some canons. The general 12 tempi-template of the piece is totally self-contained and rules all along the piece. Nancarrow was a totally constructive, rational composer. He invented perfect, long term, time-resistant, heavy-duty iron structures for each piece. They will last untouched by performers and fashions, so far the global warming would allow us to conserve them.




How did you decide which voice to which Channel?

I just followed the structure of the piece. In the study 37 Nancarrow play with several parameters: voice design, relationship between tempo and voice position in the canon; relationship between the distance of each stratum and voice design; intervalic distances and texture saturation, etc. All of these parameters are clearly perceived through the definition of a position of the voices in space. Whatever parameter Nancarrow uses, no question about it, is better perceived in 12 channels, in a big stage, surrounded by speakers. In the case of the study 37 I decided to assign one channel to each canonic voice. There are 12 voices in the piece and I had 12 channels to do the job. Easy.


How did you manage the 12 channels in Study 21?

If one canonic voice would be represented in one single audio channel, then the study 21 should be considered as a “stereo” study: it has only to voices. In the same logic, a four-voice canon would be a “quadraphonic” one, etc. But it is not only the quantity of voices of a canon the only aspect here: it is also the general conception of the piece the factor I would use to decide how to “spatialize “ it. In the case of the study 21, I decide to spread each voice in 12 channels, assigning one single note to one single channel. Due to the saturation of notes in time in this canon, each voice spins around the audience relatively faster or slower. This technique allows the listener to perceive easily the sense of acceleration or de-acceleration of voices. To make this process easier to perceive, I assigned, in one voice, for the first note, the channel 1, for the second note channel 2 etc. And in the other voice, the opposite: the first note is assigned to channel 12, the next to channel 11 etc. This creates an opposite spinning direction of the voices, and due to this contradictory movement, a clearer idea about the simultaneous acceleration and de-acceleration evolutions of both voices. I should thank to Oori Shalev for the MIDI-mapping automation for this study and of course all the people who participate by conviction in this project.


How did Nancarrow manage to create the accelerandi-ritardandi in Study 21?

Technically speaking, the study is based on terrace-acceleration, not continuous acceleration. He used a single tempo-template for both voices. This means, both voices have the same "time resolution”, and this resolution is very high. Nancarrow manage to create acceleration or de-acceleration evolutions by assigning different distances between notes, departing from the minimum resolution value, and sometime less. What is important here, also, is the speed and the perception factors. We don’t realize the terrace effect here because of both, the high speed of the notes in the fast texture (due to our perception's limitation and averaging-capacity, we tend to convert discontinuous information into continuous information, just like when we see a video or film and do not perceive the frame-rate, but a continuous movement), and the long distance between notes, in the slower texture (due to our pattern-recognition-oriented perception, we tend to "pixelate" continuous information and create recognizable patterns with it). This canon is a good example how our perception of music works, related to our perception’s physical limitations and wonderful capacity of synthesis. Nancarrow's genius manages to play with both at the same time in this piece.


Is there a "theme" in the Study 21?

Technically speaking yes. Perceptually no. The single melody in the canon, for both voices, is composed by 54 notes. Each time the melody repeats, Nancarrow took a note apart and transposed the melody. In this way, he hided the “theme” issue in this study. It should be said that in general, Nancarrow “themes” are actually clearly evident in most of the studies.




Can you describe, how Nancarrow worked with time in his music?

Each study is a different case. Time is not an isolated resource in the music of Nancarrow. It is always mixed with the perception and memory of the listener. A canon is in general a strict-ruled memory-based table game. We recognize voices because our short-term memory. And we perceive the relationship of the voices in time using a longer-term memory. Then, we perceive the macro-form of the piece thanks to a much longer-term memory. Nancarrow plays with this all the time. He hides or shows “themes” by stretching time. Melody design in Nancarrow is a time matter, not an esthetics matter. Texture, density, sonority, polyphony etc. are in Nancarrow time issues, always. (It could be said the same for music in general, because music at the end is perceived in time, but in Nancarrow this is 100% strict. Polyphony, for example can be considered in general a “space” matter in music, not a time matter). Nancarrow derives polyphony throughout time-relationships design, not intervallic design, for example. All his construction rules and techniques are time-oriented. He is not a melody-, or harmony-, or rhythm composer. He is a time composer.  Up


Interview by Michael Hoeldke  


Berlin, 2007