Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Got this in an e-mail from a friend just before I went to America. He'd been to a concert performed by Thomas Ades, which included pieces by a composer he (and I) didn't know:

Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who was born in 1912,
lived mainly in Mexico, and who died in 1997. Apparently he mostly wrote
for player piano, since he felt that no human performers could produce the
sorts of complex sounds at high speeds that he was interested in. But then
in old age he started writing for pianists again, and this piece - called
Three Canons for Ursula - was one of its fruits. It is what it claims to be
- three canons. But the canons are all expressions of mathematical
relationships: one is called Canon 5/7, the second Canon 6/9/10/15, and the
third Canon 2/3. With each the principle is the same: he starts a melody
(generally a very expressive and tonally intricate one) in the left hand,
and then joins it with the same melody in the right hand played at a faster
speed (in the ratio 5:7 or 2:3, for example), and they then catch up with
one another. The second movement has the left hand playing two melodies in
canon in the ratio 2:3, then joined by the right hand playing the same two
melodies in the ratio 2:3, but with the relationship between the left hand
and the right in the ratio 3:5. Oh, and the melodies in the different hands
are sometimes in different keys.

FWIW, 'Listen to at least one composition by Conlon Nancarrow' strikes me as both a more interesting New Year's Resolution than the normal vows to exercise more, drink and smoke less, and (ahem) spend no more than two hours a day online - and one with better chances of success. So that's mine.


Daniele A. Gewurz said...

I have read some years ago "The Last Samurai" and liked it very much. "Liked" is not the right word: it made resonate something very personal in me, but that's another story, as they say. In the past few days I happened stumbling in it in my cluttered library, so I got curious about the author. Did she wrote anything else? Who is she? I more or less followed your trail through the Internet, Wikipedia, online newspapers, up to your blog.

But I digress even before I begin. Your New Year resolution is very good, and it might become even more interesting if you also look for some information about Nancarrow's life. To whet your appetite, let me just tell you that he was a friend of actress Hedy Lamarr, and together they developed a method to radio-control torpedoes!

Daniele A. Gewurz said...

Ooops... I am afraid I was mixing up Nancarrow and George Antheil, who was the actual co-inventor together with Lamarr. Sorry.

peanut and planet said...

I've just checked the sound recordings catalog of university library here and they've got loads of your Mr. Nancarrow. Sadly, the music collection is closed until January 2nd. So the resolution will have to wait until the new year.

Why do they insist on closing the library on the few days when I have time to go there and choose books? The main library was finally open yesterday for the first time in a week. I spent a little too much time over the holiday using their online catalog to plan my attack.