Conlon Nancarrow's blues for machines

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As an English major, Web editor, and gearhead, my favorite literary metaphor of the 20th century comes from William Gaddis's two essays on the player piano --  Stop Player. Joke #4 and "Agape Agape: The Secret History of the Player Piano," both collected in The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings, a posthumous collection of criticism and miscellania edited by UIC prof Joseph Tabbi. (Gaddis eventually turned his obsession with the subject into the "novella" Agape Agape, but it's a bit crazy.)

His work on the subject reads a lot like Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, only for the computer age. Gaddis -- who wrote ad copy for IBM among other major corporations -- saw the instrument as symbolic of a shift towards a binary mode of thought ("the ancestor of the entire nightmare we live in, the birth of the binary world where there is no option other than yes or no"), the triumph of entertainment over art, the move from creation to consumption. It's a rich metaphor, especially now that the digitization of music allows its infinite replication, causing expensive fights between multinational corporations over the legal status of the artist in relation to his or her work.

Why do I bring this up? The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is performing an intriguing program at Symphony Center this Sunday which includes selections from Conlon Nancarrow's "Studies for Player Piano," a remarkable series of brief compositions (which you can sample on "his" MySpace page) I never would have gotten into had it not been for Gaddis's epic metaphor.

Nancarrow was a communist and exiled himself to Mexico City in 1940 to avoid harassment. He began composing for, and tinkering with, player pianos in part to avoid having to work with real musicians on his rhythmically difficult compositions.

If you're thinking his music must be creepy and mechanistic, not to worry. Nancarrow was a jazz devotee who started as a trumpet player, and many of his studies sound like crazed blues and ragtime, like two bordello pianists in a fight to the death (I highly recommend Study #7, which is a riot). The result is engagingly difficult but also tremendous fun. Jurgen Hocker calls his 50 studies "the Well-Tempered Clavier of the 20th century," and like Bach, Nancarrow was able to invest rigorous experiments in musical structure with wit and joy. That his explorations were not merely musical but technological makes his achievement all the more remarkable, and a source of wonder to someone like me who, in his own small way, is working at the intersection of computer technology, mass media, and culture.

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