American iconoclast composer Conlon Nancarrow’s «Studies for Player Piano» is a series of 49 études for a mechanical piano, exceeding human performer limitations, composed between 1948 and 1992 and often relying on mathematical formulas and overtone series. These «Studies» emphasize in a playful and acrobatic manner, often with provocative and complex sounds, that the use of a mechanical piano does not necessarily lead to the automation of the music. Nancarrow (1912-1997), who was also a jazz trumpeter and his work inspired John Cage and Frank Zappa, said that his «essential concern, whether you can analyze it or not, is emotional; there’s an impact that I try to achieve by these means».
The Norwegian composer-performer Øyvind Brandtsegg, who works in the fields of computer improvisation and sound installations, orchestrated Nancarrow’s «Studies for Player Piano» for pipe organ, Disklavier and electronics. Brandtsegg transferred the punched paper rolls that Nancarrow has coded with his own hands for the experimental «Studies» into midi-files using algorithmic improvisation software he had written. Since Nancarrow’s «Studies» require an extraordinary degree of articulation due to the complex rhythmic passages and high tempi, Brandtsegg often had to adjust every single note due to the slight differences in timing between the organ pipes he used in the two concerts that document «Nancarrow Biotope». These concerts were recorded in the highly resonant spaces of the Stavanger Concert Hall and the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim in October 2019 and April 2020.
«Nancarrow Biotope» offers Brandtsegg’s arrangements of 12 of Nancarrow‘s «Studies» plus two corresponding compositions by Brandtsegg and three more by Brandtsegg and pipe organ player Petra Bjørkhaug. The tasking process of transforming and arranging Nancarrow‘s «Studies» charges these exquisite compositions with weird, but hypnotic and celestial qualities, sometimes even with irreverent spiritual veins or letting these «Studies» come close to jazz territories. Furthermore, the interpretation of these «Studies» by the reverberating, mechanical-controlled pipe organs opens these refined «Studies» to urgent and powerful, rhythmic improvisation strategies. Nancarrow’s timeless and prophetic «Studies» shed, again, an insightful perspective on the way we use or struggle with automation and mechanization within our modern society’s expressive aesthetics.
«Nancarrow Biotope» is released on cassette (plus download option) by the Portuguese label Crónica.
Øyvind Brandtsegg (orchestration, computer improvisation software, marimba lumina), Petra Bjørkhaug (pipe org)