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Hans Haass: Fugue in C Major (1926)

From the album Piano Music without Limits: Original Compositions of the 1920s

Experimental music for the player piano is usually associated with the work of Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who beginning in 1948 worked for many years in obscurity in Mexico before being discovered and championed in the late 1970s and 80s. (Nancarrow was featured here in August 2009.) But in fact the history of original, “unplayable” music for player piano goes back much further, to the first decades of the 20th century. Although the earliest pieces date from the late teens, the majority of compositions in this vein were written in the 1920s, in the experiment-happy environment of Weimar Republic Germany.

The period’s dominant mood of “new objectivity,” as well as the general adulation of the machine in both capitalist and socialist thinking, led to a fascination with so-called “mechanical music.”  This could mean anything from gramophone recordings to new electronic instruments, but it was perhaps best exemplified by the player piano, which was able to reproduce with utter precision and superhuman ability virtually anything that was demanded of it.

At the new music festivals in the towns of Donaueschingen and Baden-Baden in 1926 and 1927, a handful of works for player piano were premiered by Paul Hindemith, Ernst Toch, and other composers. These pieces were deliberately composed to take advantage of the mechanical potential of the instrument (specifically, a model of player piano known as the Welte-Mignon), apart from all conventions of piano technique derived from the physical nature of the human hand. The paper rolls which stored the musical information were created not through live recording, as was customary, but by hand-pricking each tiny perforation in order to exactly determine the pitches, durations, tempo, and dynamics of the music.

One of the pieces premiered in 1927 was this Fugue in C Major (also known as the Capriccio Fugue) by Hans Haass, an accomplished composer and concert pianist who had became a director of recording for Welte-Mignon in 1925. He recorded over 300 rolls of popular and classical music, and knew as well as anyone the capabilities and limitations of the machine. According to player piano expert Jürgen Hocker, Haass’ pieces for the Welt-Mignon are the among the most adventurous and depart radically from the conventions of piano composition.  

Though recognizable as a fugue thanks to its omnipresent theme and consistent imitative polyphony, this composition is really a showpiece for the unique effects of the medium: breakneck tempo, simultaneous use of the entire keyboard, and ultra-fast runs and trills which overload the ear’s ability to distinguish individual notes, creating what Hocker calls “clouds” and “hurricanes” of sound.



Played 320 time(s).

July 22, 2010, 2:35pm

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"Another world is possible"

Peter Ablinger’s “speaking piano” declares the Proclamation of the European Environmental Criminal Court.  A stunning piece of work—conceptually, technically, and emotionally.

March 03, 2010, 10:19am

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Conlon Nancarrow: “Study No. 36” (c. 1970)

From the album Studies for Player Piano

Born in 1912 in Texarkana, Arkansas, Conlon Nancarrow was an American composer in the grand experimentalist tradition.

After fighting in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, Nancarrow returned to the U.S. but was denied a passport, likely due to his membership in the Communist Party.  He moved to Mexico City, taking with him a copy of Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources, in which the author speculated on the possibility of new forms of musical writing that would allow the notation of rhythmic patterns in any imaginable temporal ratio.  (I have written previously on Cowell’s experiments with the Rhythmicon.)

Cowell mused that many such complicated rhythms could perhaps be performed only by a player piano.  Nancarrow took this idea and ran with it: from 1940 until the 80s, he wrote exclusively for this mechanical instrument, meticulously punching tiny holes into piano rolls in order to create music of stunning complexity, often integrating funky dance rhythms and canonic structures.

In its virtuosic precision and expressive frenzy, Nancarrow’s music anticipates trends that would emerge much later with the appearance of MIDI and digital sequencing technology.

Played 70 time(s).

August 19, 2009, 9:19am

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