Circus Galop And Other Unplayable-By-Humans Piano Compositions

This is utterly fantastic. It's Quebecois pianist/composer Marc-André Hamelin's 1991-4 work for two player pianos, "Circus Galop," and because it occasionally hits all 12 staves or 21 notes simultaneously, it is unplayable by humans.

The boingboing headline is a bit misleading, because though it is being used by the restorer who shot this YouTube video to stress test a player piano, that was not, I think, the composer's intentions for the piece.

Hamelin wrote two other pieces for player piano; all three are included on Player Piano, Vol. 6: Original Compositions in the Tradition of Nancarrow, a 2008 recording released by the obvious leader in documenting the player piano repertoire, the German label MDG.

Nancarrow turns out to be Conlon Nancarrow, an American-Mexican composer who pioneered the avant-garde player piano genre. Having moved to Mexico City after WWII to avoid anti-Communist harrassment in the US, Nancarrow had difficulty finding performers willing or able to tackle his complex compositions. He worked largely in obscurity until the late 1970s, and in 1982, he was the first composer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

Eastern German player piano composer Wolfgang Heisig and Jürgen Hocker have been working to publish and perform Nancarrow's works. By threading divergent tempi through his pieces, Nancarrow definitely cleared the unplayability bar, though people have successfully made arrangements of his pieces for live performance by groups of musicians.

So in one sense, unplayable-for-humans is just a side effect, a negative characteristic of composed-for-player-piano music that explores and exploits the mechanistic, analogue medium itself. As Hocker wrote on the YouTube video description of Igor Stravinsky's "Etude for Pianola,"

Original Compositions for Player Piano between 1915 and 1930. In this period composers discovered the superhuman possibilities of the Player Piano. Strawinsky, Hindemith, Toch, Antheil, Münch, Haass and Casella used this new medium, decades before Conlon Nancarrow discovered it again for his ingenious Studies for Player Piano.
Though it's the impossible trance-like fugue passages that blow your mind, Hamelin's piece also evokes the ragtime history of player piano music. Nancarrow's "Study No. 11" above, meanwhile, is clearly in the Schoenbergian, avant-garde tradition.

But it was watching that first stress test video, and realizing it's not technically a stress test, that got me thinking: what would an actual stress-test composition sound like? Are there such things? Compositions driven by functionality, or at least something other than aesthetic or listener experience?

It occurred to me when I kept hearing Hamelin's little ragtime melody over and over, and realized that the keys on that nickelodeon were not, in fact, being tested equally. But maybe they're being tested based on the algorithmically calculated frequency of their use? Would a stress test composition necessarily just bang on all the keys a thousand times, or run scales up and down, or would it proceed in some other optimized fashion? I'm sure these are all parameters that could be fed into a composing program. Not only would the output be unplayable by humans, it'd be uncomposable by them as well.

Circus Galop [wikipedia]
the 22-page score for Hamelin's "Circus Galop" is available at Sorabji [sorabji-archive.co.uk]
Juergen Hocker's YouTube channel is full of excellent player piano performances by Nancarrow and others [youtube]

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: February 3, 2012.

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