Secluded in a quiet surburban district of Mexico City, Conlon Nancarrow spent decades composing these incomparable pieces, punching the player piano rolls himself. These Studies, of unparalleled rhythmic complexity and fascinating energy, were begun in 1949. A jazz trumpeter in the 1930s, the composer also studied world music in great detail, giving special attention to the musics of Africa and India. The consideration given to all those musical structures shows up in the Studies, not in stylistic imitation, but in rethinking shared musical "problems" and coming up with his own solution.
One of the best-known is the delightful five-movement "Boogie Woogie Suite," Study No. 3. No. 3a is based on traditional boogie and jazz (like Studies Nos. 1-10), but is manically sped-up and eventually attains eight superimposed layers of activity. In the casual and polytonal 3b, the bass is a constant chromatically-altered cycle, the treble staying in one key. Eventually the right-hand key moves to a more complex rhythmic relationship to the bass, and several internal layers in their own tempi are added before the boogie gently drifts off. No. 3c has extended canonic passages that are sometimes in a steady kind of stride piano style, but also has voices that lurch forward at times. The main melody is more of a bebop form than a boogie improv. No. 3d is more of an earthy blues which becomes abstracted into chromatic gestures, and frequently recalls honky-tonk style. The last piece, No. 3e, is even speedier than No. 3a which it recalls. Here the gestures truly become transmuted into sounds, streak lightning and roaring storms.
Study No. 20 is a more "pure music" piece (like Nos. 21-27), a three-voice canon on aperiodic rhythmic patterns. Each pattern is given a certain restricted set of pitches, which are first introduced in a staggered, gentle manner, then later played in octaves over the full range of the piano resulting in a dramatic, impassioned angularity.
Study No. 41 is in three parts, the last of which, No. 41c, consists of two piano rolls played on two player pianos. Constructed in irrational tempo ratios, 41a and 41b introduce layered combinations of bebop lines at many tempi and pitch registers, fast glissandi, and rhythmic punctuations. These develop into extremely dense textures with the glissandi taking on the aspect of hurricanes and twisters and the melodies becoming shattering crystalline structures. In 41c, 41b is introduced slightly after 41a begins. The cumulative effect is overwhelming and completely new.
In Study No. 37, pitch ratios of a just-tempered scale are turned into rhythmic ratios; in Study No. 21 "Canon X" rational tempo ratios between voices constantly shift; in Study No. 33, shifting between irrational (in this case, quarter note = the square root of 2 times 140 MM) and rational (quarter note = 280 MM) tempi occur five times in the piece. All of Nancarrow's innovations and "experiments" make for wonderful listening.