This weekend saw the Southbank Centre embark on an ambitious festival programme of rarely performed composer Conlon Nancarrow. One of the main reasons Nancarrow’s music is rarely performed is that the vast majority of what he wrote was for the archaic player piano. Even a Nancarrow devotee (like myself) must admit that his biography and approach to music is nothing short of eccentric – a communist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, he found it difficult to adapt to the developing anti-communist movement in America so he adopted Mexico as his home from 1940.

It was in Mexico City that he began to create music for player piano. It took him two years to complete his first study, punching tiny holes with incredible accuracy onto the paper rolls performed by his automated piano. Over the course of his life he wrote 51 studies for player piano, and it is this part of his oeuvre that attracts so much admiration. Over the course of one weekend, the Southbank Centre contrived to perform each and every one of these studies, along with larger-scale performances of his chamber orchestra works, arrangements of the studies and his two finished string quartets, along with a sound installation created for the occasion.

The first thing to mention about the player piano concerts is their charm. Contrived to represent Nancarrow’s own studio in Mexico City, where he’d listen to piano rolls on a comfy couch with a glass of wine, each concert was introduced by concert pianolists Rex Lawson and Wolfgan Heisig. Their enthusiasm for this music was infectious and to see the whirring, mechanical piano with its mechanism exposed was a terrific way to contextualise the listening experience.

These piano studies are a mixed bag stylistically and some don’t quite measure up to others, but some of the later pieces demonstrate Nancarrow’s relationship with Bach. There is a purity of counterpoint which is all the more satisfying for the extremes his musical ideas are taken to. Each 40-minute concert focused on groups of Nancarrow’s studies – and so, terrifically, his ‘Boogie Woogie’ studies were placed next to his ‘Tempo Canons’, fabulously complex canonic pieces where simultaneous lines of music hold different tempos to one another.

Nanacarrow’s music is some of the most unusual you will hear. Aside from pushing the instrument beyond anything possible of a human player, he often prepares the hammers with metal tacks creating a harsh attack further alienating the soundworld from its usual human associations. Somehow, though, this music is not entirely cold and mechanical: emotion does come through and the effect on its audience is not simply cerebral. It is often visceral and guttural, and it occasionally produces moments of pathos. Congratulations to the curating team behind this fabulous Southbank festival – more of the same please!

Read Arthur’s second Nancarrow review here.