Portrait of the mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow and his player piano (German version)
Film by Uli Aumüller and Hanne Kaisik
“For me”, composer György Ligeti says, “Nancarrow is simply the most important composer living today. He has created something completely unique, totally different from what others produce. And on the highest level, the level of Johann Sebastian Bach or the late Beethoven pieces.
Why does Ligeti's praise go so far beyond the usual praises of his colleagues? What connects both composers? Hanne Kaisik Aumüller (director) and Uli Aumüller (author) visited Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), the hermit, in his Mexican studio to get answers to these questions.
Until he was rediscovered after 40 years, by a.o. John Cage and György Ligeti, Nancarrow lived in his hideaway on the outskirts of Mexico City and was not in the least bit interested in public recognition. After the performance of one of his compositions had failed, because of the listlessness and technical inability of the interpreters in 1940, he tried to find a way to get rid of human musicians performing his music. Music which is sometimes influenced by jazz and rhythmically immensely awkward or influenced by 12 tone music.
After tests with a self playing drum machine had failed he chose a mechanical piano, one of the already antiquated predecessors of the music computer of the fifties. He punched holes into the paper rolls that program the pneumatic mechanism of the piano almost 24 hours a day.
The rhythmical exactness of the mechanical piano allowed Nancarrow to combine several voices with different speeds and different acceleration into a breathtaking polyrhythm, outshining everything musical history had produced in this field so far.
In Hanne Kaisik´s and Uli Aumüller´s film Nancarrow explains for the first time how his compositions are effectuated: firstly he constructs a template that subdivides time into faster and slower units into which he then inserts his melodic ideas. Despite the fact that from the first idea to the actual punched rolls it took him several months, of which about 50 are now finished studies for mechanical piano, until recently he was still convinced that after his death nobody would be interested in his music and his rolls would end up on the scrap heap.The 20th century would have simply overlooked one of it´s most important composers ...
Besides interviews with György Ligeti and Mexican fellow composers, American publishers and music publicists, Nancarrow's third wife Yoko Nancarrow and his assistant, the film shows a contrast between the quiet, hermit-like seclusion of Nancarrow's studio and residence within the multicultural complexity and unpredictable activity of the 20 million Megapolis Mexico City.