Unplayable Music

A concert exploring the work of Conlon Nancarrow and the relationship between technology, temporality and performance


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Artistic legacies
  • Performance

Organizing Institutions



Aaron Levy


Wolfgang Heisig, Rex Lawson, Kyle Gann, Richard Groman, and John Califra

Opens to public



8:00 PM


4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


50% Formal - 50% Informal

Slought is pleased to present "Unplayable Music: Nancarrow for 4 Hands." This live concert, featuring Brenna Bermanon and Jonathan Fischer, will take place on Friday June 18th, 2004, from 8:00 pm-10:00 pm, will address the relationship between technology, temporality and performance in the work of composer Conlon Nancarrow. (Download the concert program)

Nancarrow was reputedly frustrated by the limitations of human performers, specifically by their inability to handle complex rhythms. "As long as I've been writing music I've been dreaming of getting rid of the performers," he said in an interview. Additionally, the variability of human performance bothered him: "A painting stays the same forever. The same is true of other works of art. But somehow music is supposed to be different all the time."

To experiment with the interaction of the music, performer, and audience, this concert will present Nancarrow's music for self-playing player piano alongside arrangements of these pieces for human piano 4-hands performance. In addition, works for solo piano by Nancarrow will be performed.

read more

The Transcriptions

Supposedly "un-playable" by humans, the studies for player piano demand both extremely large keyboard span at any one time as well as independently capable hands in order to fully voice the many nested rhythmic structures. While these compositions were originally in piano roll format, some of them have been published as sheet music by Soundings Press. These transcriptions by Fisher are based on these published versions. In transcribing these selected pieces for piano 4-hands, many of the issues can be sufficiently dealt with. There are, however, layers of detail in the player piano compositions that cannot be achieved with perfect accuracy by human performance. For practical performance considerations, some of this detail is inaudible. For instance, in Study No. 20, a study in durations, the transcriptions instruct the pianists to be faithful to the onset of each note, rather than the durations for which they are sustained. In Study No. 26, a canon in seven voices, the enormous span of some of the chords exceed the abilities of even two pianists, thus some of the chords are rolled. While rolling of the chords technically destroys the intended simultaneity of the voices by playing some of the notes out of order, it is also an expressive technique that highlights the extreme range and weight of the particular passages. Though the transcriptions do not "equal" the studies, they provide another view of the studies, emphasizing the lyrical freedom, energy, and humor in these numerically precise works.

Conlon Nancarrow (1912 - 1997) is recognized worldwide as one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century. He began composing exclusively for the player piano in the late 1940s and studied composition with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions. His musical collaborators included Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland. Nancarrow's piano works span several volumes of studies (published by Frog Peak Music and Schott Musik International) and are influenced by blues, jazz, and mathematical proportion studies. The complete Studies have been recorded on the Wergo label. In addition to his player piano works (and concerto for player piano), Nancarrow also composed both solo and ensemble instrumental music for human performance.

Brenna Berman earned her Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance at Oberlin Conservatory and her Master of Arts in Piano Performance at Hunter College in New York. She has given solo performances in New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio, and New York. She has taught privately for six years as well as at Drexel University.

Jonathan Fisher received his bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. He has played in masterclasses with Edna Golandsky, Dorothy Taubman, Ian Hobson, Father Sean Duggan, Temuri Akhobadze, and Blanca Uribe, among others. In addition to his work on the music of Conlon Nancarrow, he has played in concerts throughout the USA and in Italy, and has given solo performances in Philadelphia.