I watched nobody play the piano the other day. Last Thursday marked the opening performance of the Gassmann Electronic Music Series (GEMS), which will continue throughout the year with five more performances. Organized by the Gassmann Electronic Music Studio, the first GEMS event featured the work of American-Mexican composer, Conlon Nancarrow.
When I said that I watched nobody play the piano, I meant it. Nancarrow, whose centennial birthday was commemorated at the event, is famous for his compositions for the player piano, a self-playing piano.
The Gassmann Electronic Music Studio, located in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, is a facility for the production of electronic, electroacoustic and computer music. Within their collection of various electronic recording equipment, like digital synthesizers and samplers, audio processors and audio mixing equipment, are two player pianos, one of which was used in Thursday’s presentation.
The player piano, which was positioned in the center of the stage in the Winifred Smith Hall, had a video camera set up where a pianist would be. For the unaware audience member, it would have been a confusing sight. Projected on a screen above the piano was the video feed of the moving keys, which gave a breathtaking visual of the speed at which the keys moved during each piece.
Presenter Christopher Dorian, a professor in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, gave introductory remarks for each piece, explaining the technical aspects for each piece such as the tempo, canons, modes and notes per minute. Nancarrow’s “Study No. 24” began with a flurry of pounding notes that blended together. Nancarrow’s pieces are often characterized by their lack of rhythm and blending of notes, which was quite noticeable during the entire performance.
At the end of “Study No. 24,” the audience was silent for a few moments before they began to hesitantly applaud. When Dorian came out, he laughed and mentioned that it was probably weird that the audience was clapping for “a ghost pianist.”
“Study No. 21,” otherwise known as “Canon X,” was the most breathtaking piece of the night. Consisting of two melodies, one high and fast and the other low and slow, proved to be an impressive example of Nancarrow’s extremely technical and elaborate compositions.
Watching the “ghost” piano produce a flurry of notes that were humanely impossible to create was an overwhelming experience not only for the ears but also for the eyes. As the sound built into a crescendo and the notes became more and more muddled, the piece ended just as startlingly as it began. After it ended, the audience chuckled to themselves, perhaps out of sheer confusion or utter amazement.
Finally, when the audience began to applaud, Dorian took to stage and noted that the notes per second ranged from 3 to 110 — some of which are humanely impossible to achieve.
To conclude the evening, Dorian introduced a string quartet, consisting of Samuel Chen and Matthew Fang on violin, Remy Converse on viola and Marc Wong on violoncello. Dorian remarked that during the summer, the four of them were told that they would be performing Nancarrow’s “String Quartet No. 1” — a complex piece that was composed before Nancarrow’s piano player studies.
Much like his piano player pieces, “String Quartet No. 1” was void of any rhythm but full of complicated and furious notes. At one point during the piece, the string on Wong’s bow began to fall off as he played.
“String Quartet No. 1” was a lively piece, and the audience seemed to be more enthusiastic at their performance than the piano player pieces, as they gave a resounding round of applause that called for three bows by the quartet.
When asked about their response when told that they’d be playing Conlon Nancarrow, Wong confessed that at first he didn’t know who Nancarrow was while Fang just stated “uh-oh.” Nancarrow, in the music world, is notorious for being hard to follow and his complex rhythms.
“The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” proved to be an interesting execution of Nancarrow’s complex pieces on the player piano, but the highlight was the student quartet that gave an unbeatable human touch to the evening with their impassioned performance.