Conlon Nancarrow: Studies 1–10 for Player Piano, Vol. 1
Andy Partridge: The Official Andy Partridge Fuzzy Warbles Collector’s Album

The player piano was the first multi-track recorder. Yes, the individual staves on a sheet of manuscript paper could be seen as so many “tracks,” terraced into those polyphonic layer-cakes called scores. But if we’re talking about a machine that enables a single person to encode all the parts and then hear the superimposed performance played back in real time, the pianola is the original four-track. Gershwin and Stravinsky were its first auteurs, but by far the most dedicated composer for player piano was the American ex-pat recluse Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote almost exclusively for the instrument.

Tired of being harassed for his outspoken communism, Nancarrow split for Mexico City in 1940, aged twenty-eight, and set up shop with two Ampico player pianos, spending the next forty years punching tiny rectangles into pianola paper. He went so far as to hire metal workers to make him a battery of punch templates customized to produce certain rhythmic effects, and tried desperately for many years to get the two machines to play in sync, anticipating (as did Stravinsky in his tweaked ballet Les Noces, originally scored for four player pianos and percussion) the digital lingua franca of MIDI. Nancarrow turned initially to the player piano because it offered the possibility of not having to hire (unreliable, cranky, expensive) musicians to perform his extremely difficult pieces. (He’d already had a disastrous experience with a live performance in New York City, when there’d only been time for two rehearsals, and only four performers had showed up to those.) A double handful of the pieces he punched out in his loft in Mexico City are now available on the exquisitely recorded Dabringhaud und Grimm CD Studies for Player Piano, Vol. 1. (The “Vol. 1” seems to indicate there are more on the way.) The CD was made using a Bösendorfer grand piano modified to work in tandem with the original machines on which Nancarrow composed—a setup not unlike the Yamaha Disclavier that was used recently to record original rolls of Gershwins’s tunes. Nancarrow had himself modified his own pianos, replacing the wood hammers with narrow strips of steel to create the brittle ping of his sound, so the setup remains true to Nancarrow’s own timbral preoccupations. The result is a crystalline, three-dimensional version of these early “studies” (as he liked to call them), and a real improvement over the five-CD set issued on Wergo a few years ago.

Practical concerns are also in part what led songwriter Andy Partridge to assemble the huge archive of DIY experiments now collected in the nine-disc box set Fuzzy Warbles. Once the spazzy front man for the herky-jerky new wave group XTC, Partridge lost it during the band’s 1982 tour due to severe stage fright and refused from that point on to perform live. While Virgin Records put up with non-touring studio seclusion for a stretch of four of five breathtakingly detailed artpop albums (among them the Todd Rundgren–produced stunner Skylarking), they lost interest shortly after 1989’s moderately successful double set Oranges and Lemons—a record Bob Christgau once said sounded like the Beatles catalogue as performed by Steely Dan, which is pretty dead-on. Fed up with the distribution sanctions Virgin had imposed, Partridge began treating his demos as finished products and, along with recordings going back to 1979’s Drums and Wires, began cataloguing all of his home-recorded material under the name Fuzzy Warbles.

For Partridge, the portable eight-track freed him from the cumbersome apparatus of label-funded studio time and label-hired producers and engineers, enabling him to eliminate a big step in the rock-biz recipe: The demo is no longer a provisional song-map for a “professional” producer to convert magically into product, but is rather the final product itself. What the XTC-o-phile immediately notices listening to the Collector’s Album is how close many of these “rough drafts” are to the finished tracks (the Rundgren-sheen on Skylarking notwithstanding). What one also notices about the Fuzzy Warbles box is the over-the-top opulence of the packaging, with its oversized and embossed booklet of liner notes, detailed (and often fascinating) song-by-song commentary from Partridge on every one of the 161 tracks, and nine stamps adorned with the cover art of each of the nine discs.

The link between these two very different composers is the way each was able in his own way to rethink the popular song through the idiosyncracies of his chosen technology. Nancarrow’s constructivist approach to American “boogie-woogie” (i.e., the point when swing syncopation locks into something like backbeat) is analogous to, say, Partridge’s near-scholarly re-tooling of Magical Mystery Tour or The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And in the same way that Partridge streamlines the vernacular of acid pop, Nancarrow blended the lyricism of Gershwin with the brutal angularity of Stravinsky. While never really venturing into the barbed-wire sonorities of the tone row, he nevertheless inherited from the serialists a fascination with the intersection of music and mathematics. Following Henry Cowell (whose textbook New Musical Resources he read and re-read throughout his life), Nancarrow explored the numerical analogies between pitch ratios and rhythms—the 3:2 ratio implicit in the interval of a perfect fifth becoming the premise for a 3:2 subdivision of the bar, and so on. The specifically pianistic asymmetries that result from such musico-mathematical operations sound, at times, like Monk at his most metrically cracked. At other moments Nancarrow’s wild, inhuman, cascading glissandos make Zappa’s Synclavier masterpiece Jazz From Hell sound like a shameless rip-off.

The relation of rhythm to pitch, and the relation of both to the possibilities of the programmable drum machine (a piece of music technology that Stravinsky would have loved) is at work in one of the more remarkable tracks from the Partridge box: the jaw-droppingly accurate home-made version of Captain Beefheart’s “Ella Guru,” in which a programmed sequence replicates identically the elliptical clatter of John French’s drum part (no doubt transcribed directly from Beefheart slapping his knee during one of the Magic Band’s LSD-fueled rehearsals). The effect here is of painstaking dedication to modeling a piece of recorded sound that on the surface seems completely chaotic, thus creating a kind of awe, as if one were witnessing an auditory magic trick. On this, and many other tracks—the sketches for “Across This Antheap,” “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her,” “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” and the non-XTC tracks “Prince of Orange” and “Wonder Annual” come immediately to mind—Partridge anticipates Ween, They Might Be Giants, the Flaming Lips, and Guided by Voices in his total fearlessness in choosing sounds. He’s happy to put a synthetic bassoon right up in the mix, or double a vocal melody with a plunky marimba patch, or build up an entire orchestra from a bounced DX7, or run the whole mix through a cheap delay pedal.

Nancarrow said near the end of his life that had he been born ten years later he would probably have been part of the bleepy computer-music scene, but at the time the clearest path to realizing his vision was the objective attack of the pianola. To our benefit the accident of Nancarrow’s birth linked him to this device, yielding one of the most remarkable bodies of work in all of American music. And yet had Nancarrow been Partridge’s contemporary, he may have spent years programming drum machines and multi-tracking MIDI files, which might’ve sounded pretty cool too.


Paul Grimstad

Paul Grimstad's songs and original scores are featured most recently in the films, Happy Christmas (2014), The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and Stinking Heaven