Conlon Nancarrow

Mix Tape #30 : Prime Numbers

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For the new 5:4 Mix Tape, i’m not so much exploring a theme as a conceit. Mathematics has been a recurring feature of both my compositional and recreational activities lately, so for this new mix tape i’ve compiled a selection of music the titles of which incorporate the first 21 prime numbers. It was, i should say, quite a challenge, but the result is, i think, a highly stimulating mixture of exquisite non-sequiturs and unexpected aural connections. The mix is in part characterised by the presence of line, from a host of oblique angles, including jazz (Tartar Lamb II), avant-garde (John Zorn), math rock (Three Trapped Tigers), neo-Wendy Carlos retrosynthtronics (Laibach), indeterminacy (Kenneth Kirschner), counterpoint in extremis (Conlon Nancarrow), bassline-driven electronica (Last Step), post-romantic ecclesiastical dreaminess (Marcel Dupré) and lo-fi intimacy (Kid Koala). Elsewhere texture predominates, either with a harmonic underpinning (Ochre, Celer, Nine Inch Nails (but only just), Dick Mills, V/Vm) or from a percussive/glitch/noise perspective (At Jennie Richie, Ryoji Ikeda, Paul D. Miller, Bass Communion, @c). Read more

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Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) – Study No. 7

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Today is the 100th anniverary of the birth of North America’s most singularly unorthodox composer, Conlon Nancarrow. Born in Arkansas but spending most of his life in Mexico, Nancarrow’s legacy is dominated by the large number of studies he composed for the player piano. His compositional practice was a punctilious & painstaking one, establishing the rhythms & pitches of the piece & then slowly punching them as holes into the roll of piano paper—perhaps the earliest example of a composer using a ‘program’ to create instrumental music (interestingly, Nancarrow’s first such study dates from the late 1940s, the same time that computer programming was becoming a practical reality). Barely acknowledged until the last twenty years of his life, Nancarrow’s work eventually became recognised for what it is: a dazzling & entirely unique enigma, as well as the most thoroughgoing & fundamental re-evaluation & re-thinking of counterpoint since the time of J. S. Bach. Read more

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Steve Reich – Triple Quartet (UK Première) & Different Trains; Conlon Nancarrow – String Quartet

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Back in October, i marked George Crumb’s birthday with a recording of his seminal work Black Angels, given by The Smith Quartet. That performance was part of a concert devoted to American music, and it makes sense to explore the remaining pieces. The concert, which took place at the Cheltenham Music Festival on 11 July 2001, opened with the UK première of Steve Reich‘s Triple Quartet. Even relatively blunt-eyed readers of 5:4 may have noticed the paucity of discussion about minimalism on these pages, and that’s no accident; it’s a generalisation, to be sure, and there are many exceptions, but for the most part minimalism leaves me very cold indeed. Yet despite his more recent compositional catastrophes—the less said about WTC 9/11 the better—Reich’s kind of minimalism impresses more than most.

His Triple Quartet is so named for the way two prerecorded string quartets are superposed upon a live quartet (alternatively, it can be performed by 12 live musicians). The triple idea extends to the work’s structure, being in three movements that adhere to the age-old convention fast-slow-fast. The outer movements are essentially the same idea explored in a slightly different way; a harmonic progression of four minor chords (Bm, Dm, Fm and G?m — Reich calls them “dominant” chords but without conventional tonality that term is meaningless) that underpin rapid rhythmic material. In the first movement, there’s much overlapping of these chords, but the changes become increasingly abrupt, and by the last movement, driven on by the rhythmic writing, these chords fly past very quickly indeed. The slow central movement is much more static, both rhythmically and harmonically, focussed on and around the B minor chord alone. Both of the faster movements feature material of a more lyrical nature, with a kind of folk-like plangency, and this comes to the fore in the middle movement, made both more poignant and potent by the abrupt halt in the tempo and the stronger sense of counterpoint. This is what makes the Triple Quartet worth hearing; despite the intensity of this slow episode making the outer movements seem even more ephemeral and arbitrary—a kind of empty energy—the music’s sudden switch to oscillations around a fixed point is rather mesmerising. But make no mistake, the slow movement is most definitely the meat in this sandwich.
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Mix Tape #6 : Piano

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For years, the piano has been to me an object of fascination and awe; its range of capabilities, expressive potential and timbral variety are breathtaking. Also for years, these qualities were the very things preventing me from attempting to compose something for it. Listening to piano music is a supreme joy, and so this new Mix Tape is a concoction of some of the more interesting examples that have been occupying my ears of late. It also represents some of my favourite composers, all of them bringing something unique to the instrument. Read more

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