Tag Archives: Conlon Nancarrow

After finishing another chapter from Kyle Gann’s American Music in the Twentieth Century, “Experimentalism,” I am starting to feel overwhelmed with names, techniques, and theories pertaining to the development of music in mid-twentieth-century America.  As is the case with music in Vienna of the late eighteenth century, the new generation of composers all are somehow directly linked with the previous or older generation of established composers – either through education, employment, mentorship, or some other relationship within the business.  Everyone continues to have a new idea about music and is attempting to inject those ideas into performance and musical art.

Harry Partch, with his insistence on turning pitch and instrumentation on its head, was on to something when it came to tuning.  The narrow-mindedness, however, of composers to look at tuning as the ‘well-tempered klavier’ makes my blood boil and I found myself stifling a yell or two while reading.  Many instruments that have enjoyed a long tradition of Western musical composition can play in the ratios uncovered by Partch.  The trombone, for example, has been around since the late fifteenth century, and it has the wonderful ability to play perfectly out of tune!  String instruments enjoy this ability as well (proven by the last orchestra rehearsal I attended).  To reinvent instruments to be able to match this new-fangled “tuning” is beyond narcissistic.  I was elated to read that composers that have followed Partch’s path, or at least experiment with semi-tonality, have written for the trombone, even if it was in excess (specifically, Wendy Mae Chambers’s Mass for seventy-seven trombones and Henry Brandt’s Orbits for eighty trombones).

Partch’s instruments can be explored in greater detail here.

Last week I ran across an interesting modern twist on a classic instrument and posted the video here.

What a shame it is that composers have become so mathematical!  Twelve-tone serialism teeters on the edge of emotionless due to its formulaic approach, but the obsessiveness of Partch with intervallic ratios and the impossibility of Nancarrow’s rhythmic oppositions blatantly disregards expression – it feels more like a “Hey, look what my machine can do!” mentality and less of a reflection of life and the world around us.  During this period in history, composers such as Bartok and Shostakovitch were writing expression while their “friends across the lake” were playing with their toys.

In the larger context of our discussion, I find it hard to pin the works of Partch and Nancarrow as “experimental,” at least by John Cage’s definition: “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.”[1]  The precision of tuning employed by Partch and of rhythm by Nancarrow, by definition, are precisely predictable and thus, lack experimentation.  These works, perhaps, are better labeled “proofs of musical concept” over experimental.

Lastly, Gann brings back the notion of spatial music through his discussion of Henry Brandt.  Though it seems that the concept of “spatial” was slightly different with Brandt than with Varese, I will harp on the idea that spatial music is not new!  Brandt is quoted by Gann as saying “Spatial separation is essentially a contrapuntal device….It makes counterpoint more distinct” (98).  Something tells me that  Gabrieli knew this idea to be true as well – his music is the quintessential sixteenth-century counterpoint and was heavily antiphonal, often utilizing three choirs of performers to express his spatial compositions.