Title: Studies for Player Piano, Volumes 1-5
Composer: Conlon Nancarrow
Label: Wergo
Recording Date: January 1988
Release Date: January 11, 2000
Recording specifications: DDD


Conlon Nancarrow wrote sixty (or sixty-two, depending on how you count) studies for player piano between 1948 and 1977 (or so - Nancarrow was notoriously bad at dating his works, claiming that 'it doesn't matter that much.') that ranged in sonic temperament from utterly dissonant to three steps short of catchy. As hard to listen to as they are, their impact on classical music is unmistakable.

Nancarrow's a tricky one - most of his music is utterly unplayable by even the most talented human musicians both because of the extra hands necessary to hit the necessary notes and because of the mind-bending rhythmic and chordal dissonances he employed - even the most simplistic pieces in his repertoire would require a total disassociation of left hand, right hand and mind, something that sounds difficult and is even more impossible in practice. The pieces, while they would benefit from the added emotional interaction of a live performer (or, if not benefit, than at least be given an additional interpretational edge), are designed to be played by a machine and as such sound, well, mechanical.

The History

Nancarrow started writing these pieces after studying music at the New School in New York City. He spent his time in New York writing for more traditional instrumentation but, after leaving the city for Mexico City in 1940, wrote almost exclusively for player piano and was almost universally ignored until these pieces achieved him an almost instant stardom in 1960.

It's easy to see why - there's something odd about listening to music played on an instrument that is usually symbolic of the musical battle between man and machine but without the presence of the human element present except in the actual writing, and even that aspect of the music is obscured by the piston-like nature of the machine involved.

To the uninitiated, the lack of dynamic range in these pieces is jarring due to the elimination of the shaping of melodic lines - depending on the size of the holes in the piano rolls, individual tones could be either loud, soft or a point in the middle but without any gradation between them note to note. A bit more can be done by adjusting the balance of the actual recording in real-time but that would be worse, would add a totally artificial kind of emotional interpretation - there's a difference between playing something quietly and playing it softly. Nancarrow would say that that was part of the point, that all that humanity got in the way of what he was trying to prove, namely that the tonality alone was all that mattered.


This collection houses one of the most important pieces to the development of Aleatoric Music, the Studies for Player Piano Nos. 40a-c. 40a and 40b are studies in their own right, but 40c consists of two pianos playing both of the previous studies simultaneously. The thing is, it's nearly impossible to sync two player pianos in any meaningful way so every performance is different, and (the second piece being two minutes shorter than the first) the time that the second study enters under the first is by no means set.

The collection also contains the Studies for Player Piano Nos. 3a-e, nicknamed the 'boogie-woogie suite.' It sounds exactly like you'd expect a piece with a name like that to sound assuming, of course, that you usually listen to music bounced through a ventilation duct.

The Recording

The definitive recordings of the Studies for Player Piano were made in 1988 on Nancarrow's own vintage (1923ish) pianos over the course of two non-consecutive days. The balances are slightly tweaked between parts but not in an overpowering way, and the recordings themselves are extraordinarily clean. Like most classical music, recording volume is sacrificed for delicateness of tone, allowing your reproduction equipment to do most of the work. It's nice of the recording engineers to assume that people listening to obscure classical music own top-of-the-line tech and this isn't a conceit unique to this collection, but it's annoying anyway.

These pieces shouldn't be listened to in large doses as they tend to blend, but it's worth it. They're also excellent to walk around town to. Jogging might prove difficult as your feet might get confused.

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