This weekend, WFMU recommended a new release from electronic musician Dan Deacon, “the only performer to list Conlon Nancarrow and Spider Man among his primary influences.” My first question: Who’s Dan Deacon? I followed the link to a 2004 entry on Deacon’s website:
So since March I’ve lost 60 pounds. I feel pretty good about it. I have a lot more energy and I get a lot more out of my being. Lately I’ve taken to grinding up all my food in this thing called the MAGIC BULLET. It’s pretty awesome. I’ve been trying to eat vegan and raw foods. This is difficult since I love chicken and cookies. However, I ruined my life once already, better not try again. I still have like 40 or 50 more dudes to lose. Yes I’ve been dumped.
Fuck my new CD is going to be so fucking awesome. You have no idea what a power house of music this beast is going to be. Some of you might say “Dan, your other CDs are terrible. Why should we believe you about this one?” And I say to you fuck off. This new CD will destroy all music and minds and leave only blood and space.
Stay busy. Don’t dwell on things. Don’t drive your self crazy. Find something “else” to love and focus on that. And it can’t be killing someone you hate. Nope nope nope. Stay away from that topic.
Roger wilco, Dan . . . After which I helped myself to two Deacon tracks, the rave-ready “Splish Splash” [Mp3] and “Drinking Out of Cups” [Mp3], a song Deacon describes as “a composition for voice on audiocassette.” In it, he asserts that “lighthouses rule. You don’t like the lighthouse, you suck.”
Okay, next question: Who’s Conlon Nancarrow? Apparently, this is a less excusable gap in my knowledge. For starters, Nancarrow appears on Alex Ross’s curious list of 100 recordings meant to survey the last century in music. (I say it’s curious because you’ll find Shostakovich & Velvet Underground, Bartók & Bob Dylan, but no Louis Armstrong. “The idea,” Ross explains, “was not to represent all the most important compositions of the period but to illustrate a diversity of styles.” Fair enough, but who is Conlon Nancarrow besides being #57?
According to Wikipedia, he was an experimental composer who specialized in doing strange things to player pianos. Born in Texarkana, Arkansas, in 1912, he briefly played jazz trumpet and studied music with Walter Piston. (I was a nerd in high school and therefore loved Piston. I didn’t even know he was a Mainer!) Nancarrow fought fascists in Spain and, when the United States denied him a passport for his trouble, he moved to Mexico and later became a citizen. His artistic process suggests that he was as much engineer as musician.
Temporarily buoyed by an inheritance, Nancarrow traveled to New York City in 1947, bought a player piano, and had a machine custom built to enable him to punch the piano rolls by hand. The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work, and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism, and covering the hammers with leather or metal so as to produce a more percussive sound. On this trip to New York he also met [Henry] Cowell, and heard a performance of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (also a result of Cowell’s esthetics), which would later lead to Nancarrow experimenting with prepared piano in his Study #30.
So now check out “Study for Player Piano No. 37” [Mp3]. Or get a load of “Song for My Grandmother” [Mp3] by Jason Forrest, who was inspired by the many ’70s bands that used player pianos in their songs, “so I made this one as a collection of tiny bits of a few of these songs. It also has some samples from Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who used the player piano to explore super-human capabilities. Brilliant man!”
Be careful, though. These recordings could destroy all music and minds and leave only blood and space.
IMAGE: Conlon Nancarrow