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Ghost in the Machine

Ghost in the Machine

: Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams..

Conlon Nancarrow became legendary for crafting music for player pianos that’s hypercomplex and maddeningly intricate but also enlivened by his love of jazz and an eccentric, mischievous humor. To celebrate the 100th birthday of this maverick composer, the Bugallo-Williams piano duo performs music that Nancarrow never intended to be played by mere mortals.

Rather like Frankenstein’s monster, Nancarrow’s player-piano studies can’t avoid suggesting their human counterpart—all of which only enhances their fascination. “Since he didn’t have to worry about whether human beings could actually play this music,” explains Amy Williams, “Nancarrow could develop a unique musical language and pursue a kind of extreme experimentation.”

Williams joined with Argentine Helena Bugallo to form a piano duo when they were both graduate students at SUNY-Buffalo in the mid-1990s. There, it was their late mentor, Yvar Mikhashoff, who initially turned them on to Nancarrow, and who first arranged the composer’s Sonatina and Study No. 15 for piano duet (i.e., for four hands on one piano).

In the years since, the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo has enjoyed widespread acclaim for their exciting take on modernist masterpieces and their collaborations with such major composers of our time as Steve Reich and Louis Andriessen. Williams now teaches composition at the University of Pittsburgh, while Bugallo lives in Basel, Switzerland, where the Paul Sacher Foundation houses a vast Nancarrow archive. For their first-ever appearance at Cornish College of the Arts (on October 27 at PONCHO Concert Hall), they’ve chosen to perform a concert tribute to Nancarrow on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Their well-designed program includes several pieces by other composers in some way or other associated with Nancarrow, including a nod to that other great maverick birthday boy of 2012, John Cage. You have to wonder just what was in the water in 1912, when two of the most original figures in American music were born.

Cage, who hailed from Los Angeles before his formative years working as a dance accompanist at the Cornish School in the 1930s, began to exercise his influence relatively early—a profound influence that spread far beyond the realm of avant-garde music to reach painters, writers, pop artists, and the culture at large. Nancarrow’s situation was strikingly different. Like Charles Ives, his musical experiments remained obscure and unknown to the broader music world for decades until he was “rediscovered” in his twilight years.

Born in an Arkansas railroad town, Nancarrow spent time as a jazz trumpeter before formally studying composition. He went off to Spain in the 1930s as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight Franco’s fascists and escaped from an internment camp. As a member of the Communist Party, Nancarrow faced hostility from U.S. officials upon his return from the war, and decided to relocate to Mexico City in 1940, where he lived in self-imposed exile until his death in 1997. It was during these long decades of relative isolation that Nancarrow pioneered his music for player piano.

The Bugallo-Williams program includes a few examples preceding this breakthrough, such as the Sonatina from 1941. Despite its cutesy, childlike title, the three-movement Sonatina is a monster of finger-bending challenges. In fact, dissatisfaction with fallible human interpretations of his scores helped prompt Nancarrow to turn in the direction of the player piano. (Was a parallel disappointment in human nature part of his motivation? It’s hard not to avoid wondering.) For several decades Nancarrow devoted himself exclusively to composing for player piano, bypassing the need for human middlemen to perform his music, and returning to composing for live performers only in his final years.

Invented in the late 19th century, the player piano involves a system of punched rolls of paper encoding what gets played back mechanically. Eventually eclipsed by advances in the gramophone, Nancarrow redefined the player piano from its original role as a reproducing instrument (of pre-existing music) into a magic box that created literally unplayable compositions. In his hands the player piano became a superhuman machine as it flawlessly played back his multiple lines of simultaneously diverging meters and tempos, spinning out a sonic matrix beyond the physical limits of flesh and bone, let alone the capacity of neurological coordination.

In fact, Nancarrow even “transcribed” the Sonatina into a version for mechanical piano. Years later, Bugallo and Williams complete the circle by performing a live version retranscribed from the piano rolls for four hands. They’ve applied a similar approach to the heart of Nancarrow’s creative work: the series of nearly 50 Studies for Player Piano, composed between 1948 and 1992.

Bugallo and Williams have worked with Argentine composer Erik Oña to craft four-hands versions of many of these studies. “We now have 13 studies arranged for piano four hands,” says Williams. “We wanted to stick to one piano to stay as close to the original sound as possible.” But even four hands have their limits, and the later player-piano studies elude any kind of transcription. The most complex arrangement they’ve made to date is one study for a Shiva-limbed combination of eight hands.

Drawing from their four-hands versions, Bugallo and Williams will trace the evolution of Nancarrow’s player-piano music from the very first set, also known as the “Boogie-Woogie Suite,” which reveals his jazz roots. “As the numbers of the player-piano Studies go up, the pieces get more abstract and more complex rhythmically,” observes Williams. “You can hear connections between the pieces as well as how Nancarrow developed his language over time.” The latest one they’ve programmed—No. 20, which Bugallo transcribed directly from the roll—has been likened to Morse code with its use of repeat-note figures.

Thomas May writes frequently about the arts.

The Bugallo Williams Piano Duo performs at Cornish College of the Arts’ PONCHO Concert Hall on Saturday, October 27th at 8:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.


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