On Friday, June 26, 2015 preeminent chamber band Alarm Will Sound descended upon the Whitney Museum offering a concert performance of the works of reclusive American composer, Conlon Nancarrow. The concert was a component of the week-long Nancarrow Festival, which included film screenings, pop-up performances within the gallery spaces, and a concert within The Whitney’s beautiful new performance space, overlooking the Hudson River from the museum’s newly consecrated perch on 11th Avenue.
There is no doubt that Nancarrow lives on as a peculiar curiosity in the spectrum of modern music. Most uniquely, nearly his entire corpus consists of complex, rhythmic studies beyond the capability of any human performer, written specially for the mechanical barroom instrument common to his early days, earning him the moniker, “virtuoso of the player piano.”
Study #2a, performed alone by the player piano, opened the program. Alarm Will Sound echoed this mechanical “performance” with a version of the same work arranged for live performers by Managing Director Gavin Chuck and conducted by Alan Pierson. As expected, the ensemble performed with intense precision and focus, the weird melancholy of the lonesome player piano being overshadowed by the ingenious collaboration and effort of the musicians. In a compelling juxtaposition, one of Nancarrow’s rare works written for live performers, his Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra, offered many flavors distilled from the period during which it was written; most prominently in shades of Stravinsky and Gershwin. While well written, it was clear that this piece did not represent Nancarrow’s honest voice as he was subsequently able to do in his mechanical compositions.
In an exhibition of Nancarrow’s often overlooked influence, the program also included a showcase work by Nancarrow’s biggest contemporary fan, György Ligeti. Written in reaction to his discovery of Nancarrow’s works, Ligeti’s incredible Piano Concerto (in five movements) exhibits an abrupt change of character immediately at odds with the composer’s unique and established voice. Alarm Will Sound’s own John Orfe made short work of Ligeti’s score at the keyboard, vaulting through even the most complex passages with delicate precision. As a result, this work was by far the highlight of the evening and seemed to secure Ligeti’s position as the master, solidifying Nancarrow’s role as a lesser curiosity who inspired Ligeti to be the best that he could be.
An evening of mounting contrasts, the program continued with Study #21 arranged by Dominic Murcott. Study #21 presents two distinct motifs, one of which gradually slows down while the other speeds up before the tempi have switched places at the top and bottom of the keyboard. Reminiscent of Charles Ives, the execution of this arrangement required two conductors, standing back-to-back and plugged into differing pre-recorded click tracks. A pre-recorded tape of the player piano, which brought to mind moments from Frank Zappa’s Jazz From Hell, panned in stereo from left to right and provided a stoic backdrop for the frenzy of activity, including movement by the performers from one chorus to another. This piece shone brightly as not only the best of Nancarrow’s works on the program, but the most compelling arrangement, infusing the mechanical and automated with the effort of the human element.
The most peculiar selection in the evening’s program was the inclusion of Gavin Chuck’s arrangement of Philosophy of the World by The Shaggs. The Shaggs were an all-female family band comprised of the Wiggin sisters and formed at the behest of their father in the 1960s, becoming most famous for their absolute ineptitude at performing. Alarm Will Sound trumpeter Jason Price gave a short speech in admiration of The Shaggs’s transcending technical ability to make music as a family. It is curious that left out of these words of praise was any mention of the father’s possible mental illness, having started the group after his mother read his palm and prophesied its formation, not to mention the suggestion of possible abuse.
It was implied that The Shaggs’s work found a place next to Nancarrow’s unusual compositions due to the bizarre structure and execution of rhythm and timing heard in their playing; seemingly impossible to reproduce with accuracy, analogous to Nancarrow’s player piano rolls. Chuck’s arrangement was incredibly skillful, sounding remarkably like their infamous 1969 recording. That said, in context this piece felt like a bit of an inside joke accessible only to those presumably initiated into the strangeness of The Shaggs (I, for one, was delighted to hear this wonder, grinning all the while). The onus of the arrangement came across as over-intellectualized, focusing on the coincidental rhythmic complexity of the group’s music, which was of course the result of their total lack of ability as instrumentalists, rather than an artistic choice that set them apart. The essence of The Shaggs’s weirdness is not wrapped up in the material of their music, but perhaps in the mystery of their relationship with the idea of making music. The element that makes them what they are and what they represent is beyond detection, which could be explored in ways other than arranging an accurate sound-alike.
Nonetheless, just as The Shaggs’s hyper-complexity was an unintended side-effect of their playing, there was perhaps another, overlooked connection; just as Nancarrow inspired Ligeti’s magnificent Piano Concerto (which in turn pulled Nancarrow into the limelight under the auspices of Ligeti’s influence and fame), The Shaggs take credit for inspiring creativity in many generations of greater genius in the outsider music sphere, including masters of fringe such as Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain and Deerhoof. The influence of The Shaggs is unquestionably pervasive, albeit misidentified in this particular context.
The program closed with two versions of Study #3a, the first arranged by Derek Bermel, and the last closing the circle with a solo performance by the real star of the show, the player piano. As a unit, the evening provided further collateral of Alarm Will Sound’s wonderful sense of adventure in programming, and christened The Whitney’s new performance space in as unique a way as could be expected.