Music after Conlon Nancarrow

This weekend (21st and 22nd April 2012) sees the Conlon Nancarrow festival at the South Bank, London. I’ve not been able to attend due to time, but having explored the South Banks website I was delighted to see available some Nancarrow player piano samples available for the call for scores project (again one i couldn’t do at the time as it clashed with me writing for CNM2012). Now that project is complete I downloaded the samples and thought I’d have some fun; what i was able to extract were single notes from a player piano- tuned to 440Hz. Samples are still available here: Under section 4

To me there was no point in just putting these into a sampler and playing it as a piano because this is exactly what Nancarrow didnt do; he wrote for the paper roll direct- allowing completely unplayable music to be performed mechanically- and that was the ‘spirit’ I wanted to explore.

What i did was to load each sample into a slot in the matrix of Ableton Live arranged by pitch and octave- pitch on the horizontal, octave on the vertical- this arrangement ruled out note octaves as in Ableton all the samples vertically aligned will only play in series, so if hit A oct 1 followed by A oct 2, A oct 1 will stop playing. Notes on the horizontal will play in series.

Next I decided on a particular note row i wished to use (which can also be a scale) C, D, eE, F#, A, Bb, C- so I deleted the notes I wasn’t going to use and the following matrix was generated


Next thing was to play this matrix solely using the Launchpad- I improvised some ideas until I found a shape I basically liked and then on recorded it.

The great thing about Ableton was the clips automatically repeat, unless told to play only once, so with them all globally set to repeat what happens is phrases can be played but the notes immediately repeat when the sample reaches the end. The net result is the phrase deconstructs; because its not repeating a sequence of notes but the notes individually, so all sorts of unpredictable shapes start to come out- thing then is to turn off ones and leave others repeating; I found this to create some very interesting textures that are not immediately obvious and ones which wouldn’t be arrived at by playing conventional keyboard


If your browser doesn’t support the embed, the results can be heard on the link below :-

UPDATE: YouTube Demo improvisation of technique here

About stuartrussellcomposer

Composer/ sound artist. Electronic musician. Modern classical composer
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