Conlon Nancarrow at the Southbank

Elizabeth Davis enjoys a highly unusual concert of mechanised music of a very human kind

Ampico pianoThe house lights come down, quiet falls in the audience, but no performer arrives. In the middle of the stage there is a piano which looks like its best days are long behind it. A red light comes up on the stage and the piano begins to play – the notes move up and down, the instrument shudders with the force of the music – but still there is no performer.

The piano is, in fact, a reproducing piano – an instrument which produces music based on the pattern of holes punched into a paper roll inserted into its centre. And the music emanating from it was written specifically for the instrument by American composer Conlon Nancarrow – whose work was celebrated last weekend in a series of concerts, installations and a conference at London’s Southbank Centre.

Nancarrow was writing in the second half of the 20th century – and reproducing pianos were already going out of fashion. He decided to compose music for these instruments largely because he wanted to write music that was impossible to play. He wanted to experiment with impossible rhythms, layers of music, textures that were beyond the capability of a human pianist.

Listening to two short programmes of his Player Piano Studies in the Southbank’s Purcell Room – presented by two experts on Nancarrow, Rex Lawson and Wolfgang Heisig – was a fascinating experience. The first concert was a showcase for his jazz-inspired works – as the piano sang out jaunty rhythms and frenetic bass patterns it seemed to be possessed with the spirit of a honky-tonk Harlem pianist – you could almost inhale the smoky atmosphere. The second concert looked at Nancarrow’s experiments with canon which use mind-boggling tempo ratios ranging from the relatively straight-forward (3:5) to the downright ridiculous (1/√π / √2/3).

The music was exhausting to listen to – it demanded every iota of your attention but what was striking was the amount of human effort and passion that had gone into creating these short pieces performed on a machine. Wolfgang Heisig had punched out the music, working in measurements as small as an 18th of an inch, Nancarrow himself had spent hours, months, years creating his complex Studies, a piano tuner had spent hours hammering drawing pins into the reproducing piano’s hammers to create Nancarrow’s trade-mark metallic sound and Rex Lawson, who presented the concert, has devoted years to studying this music.

Despite the suction motor that powered the machine, despite the whirring cogs and valves – despite the apparent absence of humanity, it felt only right to applaud.