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Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano: Towards a Critical Edition

English title Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano: Towards a Critical Edition
Applicant Meyer Felix
Number 166478
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Paul Sacher Stiftung Archiv und Forschungszentrum für die Musik des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts
Institution of higher education Non-profit organisations (libraries, museums, foundations) and administration - NPO
Main discipline Musicology
Start/End 01.08.2016 - 31.01.2021
Approved amount 322'791.00
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Keywords (4)

Philology; Critical Multimedia Edition; Source Studies; Musicology

Lay Summary (German)

Der amerikanisch-mexikanische Komponist Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) gilt als eine der herausragenden Persönlichkeiten in der Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts. Sein Ruf geht nicht zuletzt auf seine Arbeiten für das Player Piano zurück, ein pneumatisches Selbstspielklavier, für das er zwischen 1948 und 1984 über fünfzig Studies schrieb. Nancarrow widmete sich in diesem Zeitraum ganz dem Player Piano, weil es ihm hinsichtlich der Zeitgestaltung unbegrenzte Möglichkeiten bot: So kombinierte er unterschiedliche Tempi, Metren und Tempoveränderungen, manchmal bis an die Grenze der Wahrnehmbarkeit. Dabei stanzte Nancarrow die Papierrollen, die in das Player Piano für den Abspielprozess eingespannt werden, selbst.
Lay summary
Ziel des vorliegenden Projekts ist es, eine erste kritische Edition von ausgewählten Studies for Player Piano vorzulegen. Hierfür gilt es die unterschiedlichen Quellen (Skizzen, Notizen, Partituren, gestanzte Papierrollen, Player Pianos, Briefe, Schriften), die sich im Nachlass Nancarrows in der Paul Sacher Stiftung (Basel) befinden, auszuwerten. Zunächst müssen die Teile der notationellen Quellen identifiziert und geordnet werden. Sodann gilt es, die Player Pianos einer akustischen Analyse zu unterziehen. In einer zweiten Phase werden die gewonnenen philologischen und akustischen Informationen ausgewertet und im Hinblick auf ihre editorische Relevanz geprüft. In einer dritten Phase sollen die technischen und editorischen Herausforderungen untersucht werden, die sich aus der zeitlichen Komplexität der Musik einerseits sowie aus den unterschiedlichen Quellentypen andererseits ergeben. In der vierten und abschliessenden Phase wird die Edition durchgeführt. Damit werden erstmals kritische Editionen von Werken Nancarrows erstellt, die zudem in hybrider Form gedruckte und digitale Anteile kombiniert, um den musikalischen und philologischen Anforderungen gerecht zu werden.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 08.04.2016

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
143565 Anton Webern: Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke 01.10.2012 Project funding (special)


The American/Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) is widely recognized as a prominent figure in the history of twentieth-century Western art music. His work has exerted decisive influence on composers as diverse as György Ligeti (1923-2006), Elliott Carter (1908-2012), James Tenney (1934-2006), and Frank Zappa (1940-1993) and continues to shape aesthetic and technical concerns in younger generations of composers and performers worldwide. His legacy is unique in many regards. Remarkable is his devotion to the mechanical player piano for the majority of his productive life. Exclusively dedicated to this rare instrument between 1948 and 1984, he authored a collection of over fifty Studies, some of them with several movements. The unlimited possibilities of the medium in the temporal domain had a special appeal for Nancarrow from the outset. Throughout his series of brief, yet highly condensed pieces, he kept exploring musical time, sometimes up to the very limits of perception. He typically experimented with multiple simultaneous tempos, either underlining their coexistence-most often through canons with clear melodic and harmonic profiles-or combining them to create complex textural or gestural results. He also implemented different types of gradual tempo changes (geometric and arithmetic accelerandos and ritardandos) and fully exploited the instrument’s ability to perform at extremely high speeds. This experimentation, combined with the all-consuming demands of having to punch the player-piano rolls manually, contributed to shaping Nancarrow’s musical thought and practice to an extreme degree. After 1984, when he began to accept commissions for performers again, he remained working with his mechanical instruments, producing rolls to test the music or adapting previously discarded player-piano pieces to fulfill the requests.The main goal of this project is to produce the first critical edition of a selected group of Nancarrow's 'Studies for Player Piano'. The research will be based on the unique combination of primary sources and equipment surrounding his output: music manuscripts of diverse types, player-piano rolls, the pianos themselves, and Nancarrow’s personal correspondence. The project will be carried out at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel (Switzerland), where all these items have been housed since 1997. The first phase of the project will focus on the identification and classification of significant portions of the collection that still remain uncatalogued. The first acoustic analysis of Nancarrow’s pianos will be also carried out during this initial phase. A second phase will be devoted to the study and comparison of the various available sources (written and acoustic), mapping redundancy and complementarity among them and weighing the relevance of their individual contributions with a view to the projected edition. The third phase will deal with the conceptual and technical challenges posed by the actual realization of the scores. It is anticipated, in accordance with the developments in digital humanities, that the edition will assume a hybrid format, including printed as well as electronic components that will facilitate, when relevant, alternative representations of the same music. Crucial to this phase will be a participation in the development of technical tools (including music notation software) equipped to handle the unique temporal demands posed by Nancarrow’s music. The fourth and final phase will consist of the actual realization of the projected edition. The criteria for selecting the edited works will be based on their lack of availability (approximately one third of the Studies, particularly the late ones, remain unpublished), their diversity of technical and aesthetic concerns, and their expected relevance for further scholarship. This project is the first integrative investigation of Nancarrow’s primary sources and has been conceived as a model for a future critical edition of his complete works.